Op-Ed: Smart energy is smart policy

For customers to get smart about electricity usage and costs, and for utilities to speed restorations and increase reliability, they both need to get smart about smart energy systems
Tom Churchelow

Gov. Phil Murphy’s Energy Master Plan (EMP) lays out an ambitious agenda for the future of energy in New Jersey. It’s a cliché, but meeting the goals as outlined in the plan will require outside-the-box, innovative thinking. Fortunately, that kind of thinking already exists in New Jersey through smart energy systems. These systems will not only help us meet the EMP’s goals, but also give customers relief on their energy bills and create jobs for the state’s economy.

Smart energy systems proposed for deployment by New Jersey’s investor-owned electric utility companies will bring the future to the Garden State — a future with more clean energy, improved energy efficiency, better service reliability and more choices for customers. That’s because smart energy systems will integrate advanced metering infrastructure, and that technology, according to the U.S. Department of Energy provides, “More customer control over electricity consumption, costs and bills from greater use of new customer tools (like web portals and smart thermostats),” will reduce “inconveniences for consumers due to faster restoration after major storm events or disruptions, and will lower customer costs through decreases in peak demand for electricity.”

These systems will also enable the efficient deployment of electric-vehicle charging, energy storage and renewable energy sources like wind and solar that are called for in the Energy Master Plan. I applaud the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities for its leadership in facilitating these proposals by opening a process that directs electric companies to file for approval of  smart energy systems and urge their timely approval.

More expensive generation resources are typically dispatched during peak electricity demand, so curbing that peak can reduce overall costs for all customers. For utilities, the benefits of smart energy systems, according to the U.S. Department of Energy include efficiencies such as fewer truck rolls and improvements in asset utilization and maintenance, improved billing accuracy and faster isolation of outages allowing “dispatch (of) repair crews more precisely, reducing outage duration, limiting inconvenience, and reducing” associated costs.

Leading environmental advocates have also touted the numerous benefits of smart energy systems. The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy cites numerous benefits to utilization of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), including “near-real-time feedback, combined with communications and possible automation, (that) can better inform and motivate customers to respond to pricing signals and change their energy use accordingly.” The Environmental Defense Fund, among others, has expressed support for utilities taking steps to develop a clean, modern grid that provides customers with access to energy-use data through implementation of AMI.

Customers are increasingly interested in monitoring, analyzing and increasing the efficiency of their energy use but to do so, they need access to their usage data. New Jersey’s electric utilities have proposals underway to do just that — PSE&G has proposed a smart system, the Energy Cloud, that would, among other benefits, provide more than 2.3 million customers with usage information to promote efficiency and near-real-time outage notification to facilitate faster restoration.

Atlantic City Electric has proposed a Smart Energy Network that will take a critical step in advancing a clean-energy future for southern New Jersey by upgrading the grid into a common platform connecting customers to new energy services and more choices and improving outage response. JCP&L’s AMI Program proposal has the potential to reduce labor costs, provide voltage optimization, detect outages, increase the opportunity for data collection, provide faster service restoration, improve billing accuracy, detect theft and enhance energy efficiency for its 1.1 million customers. Moreover, the workforce required to build and maintain these systems will create jobs and help bolster the economy at a time that is sorely needed.

AMI installed by Rockland Electric through a pilot program has already improved reliability of its system in sections of Bergen, Passaic and Sussex counties. The company found that AMI became an essential aspect of service restoration activities during Tropical Storm Isaias, enabling the company to boost the effectiveness of its outage management operations as well contributing to a reduction in outage duration and costs. Smart meters with outage detection and notification automatically transmitted a “last gasp” notification when power to the meter was lost and enabled automatic outage and restoration notification, which previously had to be verified by a phone or service call. Smart meters also transmitted “power on” notifications to the outage management system when power was restored.  That information was used effectively to manage service restoration efforts and helped to confirm partial restoration steps for larger outages.

We can meet the goals of the Energy Master Plan while also lowering costs for customers and creating jobs. It is not some unattainable dream, but a reality that is already happening on a small scale here in New Jersey and in 70% of homes nationwide. Smart energy systems deployed by New Jersey’s investor-owned electric utility companies can get us there.

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