Sharing smart-meter data key to cutting-edge power grid, advocates argue

With NJ utilities looking to invest more than $1 billion in smart meters, they claim technology will lower customers’ electric bills, speed power restoration
Credit: (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, J.P. Moczulski, File)
Smart meters will give customers a clearer picture of how they’re using electricity and allow them to tweak usage times and other parameters to save money.

Smart meters are widely viewed as a fundamental component in creating a modern electric grid equal to the task of helping transition to cleaner energy and eliminating carbon from the energy sector.

With three electric utilities seeking to invest more than $1 billion in installing smart meters, or AMI (advanced metering infrastructure) as it is often called, state officials on Monday heard it could also lower customers’ electric bills and speed up restoration times during widespread power outages.

In a webinar sponsored by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, utility and energy executives, consultants and others warned many of the projected benefits could be undermined if real-time sharing of customers’ energy use is not readily accessible.

Developing framework for smart metering

The webinar is expected to help provide a generic approach for developing a framework for implementing AMI throughout New Jersey. The biggest questions that emerged from the 4 1/2-hour event revolved around what kind of data is made available to customers, utilities and so-called third-party suppliers who provide electricity to consumers and how to protect the privacy of that information.

Without access to that information, energy suppliers probably could not offer a range of new services to help consumers lower their energy bills. In Illinois, for instance, suppliers offer free weekends and free weeknights to customers, according to Robert Gibbs, director of corporate affairs for Centrica.

“AMI can unlock tremendous potential for customers understanding their energy use,’’ Gibbs told the board. It all depends if the access to the data is available, Gibbs said.

Return on investment in AMI

The high costs of smart meters have led state regulators to focus on the potential of the two-way communications systems, which allow information to be quickly exchanged between the customer and utility, to provide added value to customers, according to Chris Villarreal, president of Plugged In Strategies. They want to ensure customers get value out of the investment, he said.

AMI is not a new technology; it’s been around for more than a decade. In the United States, about 70% of customers have smart meters in their homes, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Energy, Villarreal said.

“We’ve come a long way in 10 years,’’ said Marissa Hummon, chief technology officer for Utilidata, Inc., a firm specializing in optimizing energy savings on the grid.

Utilities plan to deploy smart meters

New Jersey has embraced smart meters, after years of worrying about their costs to consumers. The BPU is currently reviewing separate filings by Public Service Electric & Gas, which is seeking to invest $714 million to install smart meters over five years; Jersey Central Power & Light, $418 million over four years; and Atlantic City Electric, $220 million over two years.

Utility officials argue those investments could lead to smarter decisions by customers on how to reduce their energy use and when to run energy-consuming appliances like dishwashers, washing machines and dryers.

Consumer advocates, like New Jersey Rate Counsel director Stefanie Brand, question why the state should be deploying smart meters so quickly when existing meters replaced in recent years have yet to outlast their usefulness.

There also is a dispute about how quickly the state should begin deploying smart meters, when issues about access to their data and privacy concerns have yet to be resolved. Terrence Moran, an executive with PSE&G, said the deployment of the new meters should be the top priority.

Others disagreed. Michael Murray, founder of the Mission Data Coalition, which represents energy management firms, said the data-access issues need to be decided before the deployment of AMI.

Others said the utilities need to be directed to take advantage of opportunities to save customers money by using the smart-meter data. “If the order does not require them to meet certain requirements because it’s not part of their job, they won’t meet them,” said Hummon.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight