State’s Electric Utilities Make Plans to Roll Out Smart Meters

Advanced metering infrastructure widely viewed as key to smarter power grid and reducing time customers are left in the dark during outages
Credit: Tom Raftery via Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Smart meter

In what amounts to a first, all four of the state’s electric utilities have plans to either install smart meters or, in the case of Rockland Electric, have already done so.

Smart meters and advanced metering infrastructure are widely viewed as crucial to building a smarter electric grid — one that can successfully integrate intermittent sources of electricity like solar panels and offshore wind into a more intelligent power grid. It will also give utilities the ability to respond and restore power rapidly when more than a million customers experience outages, such as happened earlier this month during a tropical storm.

So far, that’s largely not the case in New Jersey, with the exception of Rockland Electric’s 74,000 customers, who got smart meters last year under a pilot program approved by the state Board of Public Utilities.

Holding off on smart metering

In the past, state regulators have been reluctant to boost utility customers’ bills by approving smart meters, even though they are widely used in the rest of the country, with more than 90 million homes outfitted with the technology.

“New Jersey has been beyond the curve for years on smart meters,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “We’ve underinvested in the electric grid for generations.’’

With the state trying to transition to 100% clean-energy technology, the BPU lifted a two-year-old moratorium on utilities moving to smart meters last February. The agency directed them to file plans within six months, a deadline that came this past Thursday.

This week, both Atlantic City Electric and Jersey Central Power & Light submitted filings with the BPU to build out smart meters for their 500,000 and 1.1 million customers, respectively.

Price tags for smart meters

Atlantic City Electric would invest $220 million over two years, if approved; JCP&L, $418 million over four years.

Public Service Electric & Gas is already in a rate case at the BPU to spend $714 million over five years for its 2.3 million customers. Like other utilities, it says the technology can reduce the duration of power outages, sending a signal to the company when power is lost.

With customers facing a wave of rate increases stemming from the Murphy administration’s shift to clean energy, it is uncertain how extensive those programs will be after scrutiny by the BPU and others.

Rate Counsel Stefanie Brand has concerns, particularly over the utilities’ plans to replace all existing meters, including ones installed in recent years, with new smart meters. “I don’t have a problem with AMI,’’ she said, yet argued it should be done over a period of years, during normal replacement of meters.

“These are very big numbers,’’ Brand said, referring to the cost of replacing every meter in the state. “They are doing it in the most expensive way possible.’’

Utility executives say shifting to smart meters and other infrastructure could lead to customers savings on their utility bills thanks to smarter decisions about when and how they use electricity, and by reducing the duration of outages.

Atlantic City Electric dubbed its program the Smart Energy Network and said it’s critical to connecting its customers to a variety of clean and affordable energy choices.

“A modern energy grid, with the Smart Energy Network as its backbone, will pave the way for more solar energy installations, more robust energy efficiency installations, more charging infrastructure for electric vehicles and more resilient energy infrastructure to help restore service for our customers faster following increasingly common storm events,’’ said Gary Stockbridge, president of ACE.

Overselling AMI’s benefits?

But Brand said she thought the utilities were overselling the benefits of how quickly service could be restored in storms with AMI technology. “To me, this isn’t going to solve our storm-response problems,’’ she said.

JCP&L minimized the impact of the new technology on customers, saying it will only increase monthly bills for typical customers by 65 cents, effective on Jan. 1, 2022, if approved by the BPU, according to Cliff Cole, a spokesman. Over the duration of the program, costs will rise $4.01, or approximately 3.8 percent.

With all the other filings dealing with clean energy, such as solar, offshore wind and nuclear, Brand said somebody had to pay attention to this. “If we keep piling on, it is going to be an unaffordable system,’’ she said.