Posts Tagged ‘smart meters’

On Thursday in The New York Times, I write about an independent report that finds that PG&E’s smart meters are not responsible for higher utility bills incurred by some customers:

After Pacific Gas & Electric, the giant California utility, began installing smart meters in the state’s Central Valley, the company was swamped with complaints from residents that their utility bills had increased.

But an independent review of the smart meters released Thursday found that the devices were functioning properly and attributed the high charges to a heat wave last year that coincided with their installation as well as poor customer service by P.G.&.E.

“They are accurately recording usage and throughout our evaluation we found no systemic issues,” Stacey Wood, an executive with the Structure Group, a Houston consulting company, said on Thursday at a meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission. “We did identify there were weakness in the focus on customer service.”

The utilities commission hired the Structure Group to conduct test P.G.&.E’s smart meters and conduct a technical review.

The digital devices wirelessly transmit data on a home’s electricity and natural gas usage to utilities while allowing residents to monitor their electricity consumption in real time. Smart meters are considered a linchpin for the development of a smart power grid and tens of millions of the gadgets are set to be installed nationwide in coming years.

But the rollout has been anything but smooth in California, where nearly 10 million smart meters will be deployed.

“By the fall of 2009, the C.P.U.C. had received over 600 smart meter consumer complaints about ‘unexpectedly high’ bills and allegations that the new electric smart meters were not accurately recording electric usage, almost all of which were from P.G.&E.’s service area,” according to the Structure Report.

The consulting firm said it then tested more than 750 smart meters in the laboratory and in the field and reviewed utility account records for 1,378 customers, including those that had complained of abnormally high bills.

“Of the 613 smart meter field tests, 611 meters were successfully tested, and 100 percent passed average registration accuracy,” the report stated.

The study attributed some residents’ higher bills to a 2009 heat wave in Kern County as well as increased electricity usage due to new swimming pools or additions to their homes.

Then there was P.G.&E.’s handling of the controversy.

“P.G.&E. processes did not address the customer concerns associated with the new equipment and usage changes,” the report said. “Customer skepticism regarding the new advanced meter technology was not effectively addressed by P.G.&E. on a timely basis.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

No one said transforming the century-old power system into a state of-the-art digital smart grid was going to be easy. But California already is getting bogged down in a growing fight over installing smart utility meters in homes.

The wireless devices are a linchpin in building the smart grid as they allow the two-way, real-time transfer of data about a home’s power use. Utilities need that information to balance supply and demand on a power grid that will be increasingly supplied with intermittent sources of renewable energy while facing new demands from electric cars.

For homeowners, smart meters and an expected proliferation of smart refrigerators, dishwashers, and other appliances will help them keep a lid on rising electricity costs while making better use of rooftop solar panels.

But from the get-go, smart meters have raised a ruckus in California. First, residents in the state’s hot Central Valley complained that their utility bills spiked after the meters were installed last year.

Then in the San Francisco Bay Area, a small but vocal contingent has been arguing that smart meter antennas are a potential health threat. Never mind that every other person here seems to carry an iPhone, and many, if not most, homes in this tech-centric region boast wireless Internet routers that continuously transmit electromagnetic frequencies through the ether.

At first smart meters appeared to be a fringe issue — at the Fourth of July parade in the Marin County hippie beach enclave of Bolinas, I saw people holding up ban-the-smart-meter banners. But last week, I spotted similar homemade signs at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. Meanwhile, the Marin towns of Fairfax and Novato have moved to ban smart meter installations; Santa Cruz County is considering doing the same.

Lost in all the hullabaloo is what a smart meter can do for managing your home’s carbon footprint. There are all kinds of gadgets and services coming down the pike that will let you control your electricity use from your phone and pinpoint the power hogs in your home. But even the most basic information provided by a smart meter is a big leap from a once-a-month bill.

My utility, PG&E, installed a smart meter at my house some months ago but just the other week began to let me monitor my electricity use on its website. If you want to geek out, you can really get granular by charting your power use hour-by-hour, pinpointing spikes and seeing how your lifestyle affects your energy consumption.

This morning, for instance, I learned that 21 days into the current billing cycle I’ve used $11 worth of electricity and that my projected total bill is between $15 and $20. My daily electricity use peaks around 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. and I’m using slightly fewer kilowatts than this time last year. I also set up an email alert to be sent if my electricity consumption kicks me into a more expensive rate tier.

And in the keeping down-with-the-Jones department, I learned that my energy use puts me at the very low end of the Berkeley spectrum.

All this provides valuable insight for the building of the green grid. But as with other efforts to transition to a renewable energy economy, overcoming political obstacles to the smart grid may be just as crucial as any technological triumph.

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A Silicon Valley  startup called EcoFactor aims to cut consumers’ electricity bills and help utilities manage peak demand by controlling homes’ heating and air conditioning systems over the Internet. As I write on Tuesday in The New York Times:

As utilities install more smart meters in homes, more companies are offering services that tap the devices’ ability to give consumers information about their electricity use.

But EcoFactor, a startup in the Silicon Valley suburb of Redwood City, aims to take things even further by gathering data about the weather, as well as consumers’ individual climate-control habits, to adjust a home’s air-conditioning and heating systems.

Call it a smart thermostat.

Besides learning when homeowners tend to turn on their heat or air-conditioning, EcoFactor also monitors weather down to the zip code level. Every 60 seconds, its algorithms take that data and calculate how much electricity use can be reduced while keeping the occupants comfortable.

“After three days of energy data collection, we’re able to create a thermodynamic model for a home and use that for running energy efficiency programs,” said Scott Hublou, a co-founder of EcoFactor and its senior vice president for products. “We understand how much outside weather impacts temperatures inside and how a home’s systems have to overcome that outside temperature.”
On Tuesday, EcoFactor announced a three-year agreement to run a program for the Texas utility Oncor to reduce peak electricity demand by three megawatts. That’s a relatively small amount, and the program will initially involve only a handful of households.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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tendril-iphone-appHere’s an iPhone app that really could help save the planet while saving stressed consumers’ money: Boulder, Colo.-based startup Tendril this week unveiled a mobile software program that lets people monitor and control their home’s energy use while on the go.

Say you’re sitting in the unemployment office listening to some bureaucrat drone on, so you pull out your iPhone to update your Facebook status and then check on whether that next unemployment check will cover the utility bill. When Tendril tells you that your electricity consumption is spiking and so will your estimated monthly bill, you remember you left the air conditioner set on Arctic. Flick your finger and shut that energy hog down.

That scenario won’t become common for awhile it as relies on a widespread rollout of smart utility meters that will bring the interactive smart grid and real-time electricity pricing into the home. That is happening, albeit very slowly (though the pace is expected to accelerate with billions in the stimulus package being poured into smart grid-related projects. The ability to remote-control your appliance, however, is some years away).

For instance, Tendril, is rolling out a home energy management system for Texas utility Reliant Energy (RRI) that allows customers to monitor and control their electricity use through a video display that sits in the living room. When Green Wombat visited Reliant’s smart house project in Houston last September, the utility’s tech guys showed me their own home-brewed iPhone app.

As anyone with an iPhone knows, Apple’s (AAPL) app store makes it ridiculously easy to turn the gadget into Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver – a gizmo that does everything but put out the trash and feed your pet bunny. But earth2tech’s Katie Fehrenbacher questions how widespread Tendril’s app would be used given the difficulty in putting any third-party software program on a BlackBerry or other smartphone. But that’s changing by dint of Apple’s growing share of the smartphone market and the advent of the app-friendly Google (GOOG) phone.

Green Wombat is most intrigued by the potential of such apps as the Tendril Mobile Vantage to tap into people’s inherent competitiveness, keeping-up-with-Jones mentality and, in the Facebook era, compulsion to share, share, share. The data generated by smart meters and home energy management systems like Tendril’s will let consumers compare their energy use – and thus contribution to global warming – with their neighbors and friends.

In fact, Tendril is planning to add a carbon footprint feature to its mobile app. Funnel that data into a Facebook newsfeed and let the peer-to-peer pressure go to work to see who can claim Twittering rights to a low-impact lifestyle.

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In case you missed it, this Green Wombat story appears in the current issue of Fortune.

A house that thinks

The high-tech networks that Reliant Energy is installing in the homes of its 1.8 million customers will help them save electricity.

By Todd Woody, senior editor

(Fortune Magazine) — Inside a white-brick house nestled in Houston’s leafy Montrose neighborhood, a gray handheld video display sits on the living room coffee table. But this is no ordinary remote control. Called the Insight and made by Tendril, a Boulder startup, the device communicates wirelessly with the home’s utility meter, letting you track real-time information about the cost of the electricity you consume.

The house is actually a demonstration project set up by Reliant Energy (RRI), a reseller of electricity with $12 billion a year in sales. Glen Stancil, Reliant’s vice president for smart energy R&D, taps the Insight’s screen. “Right now we’re spending $1.40 per hour,” he says, noting that the electricity prices and usage are updated every ten seconds. (Customers can also access the same data on the web or their iPhones.)

Stancil presses another button. “The bill so far is $86, and for the month it looks like it’s headed to $367,” he says. The Insight system also warns that you’ll fork over another $100 this month if you crank up the air conditioner a couple of notches. So keep your hands off the thermostat.

That’s just the kind of behavior that Reliant Energy CEO Mark Jacobs would like to see. Until now, Reliant has made its money by entering contracts with utilities for a fixed amount of power at a fixed price and then reselling it to its 1.8 million customers. If demand unexpectedly soars on a hot afternoon as everyone turns up the air conditioning, Reliant often must buy extra power on the spot market, where prices can spike as much as 60%.

That cuts into profits. “It’s like running a beachfront hotel, charging the same room rate all year round, and then building more rooms to guarantee that everyone has a room on the busiest weekends,” says Jacobs.

In November, Reliant started installing the Insight in homes, which means it will be able to pass along those high spot prices to its customers, or better yet, in sweltering Texas, let customers buy a month’s worth of cool at a set price – say, 72 degrees for $200 or 74 degrees for $160.

The Insight offers another advantage – Jacobs believes it will encourage his customers to cut back on electric use and save money. “What if you knew you could run your clothes dryer at five o’clock, and it would cost $3,” says Jacobs, “or you could wait until eight o’clock at night, and it would be only a dollar?”

PG&E (PCG), Southern Edison International (EIX) and other utilities are rolling out smart meters but have yet to to integrate them with smart energy systems for the home. But Reliant operates in a competitive, deregulated electricity market. If homeowners get cool technology that helps them avoid the unpleasant surprise of a big electric bill, Jacobs believes Reliant will retain more customers. And then there’s the green angle. “We as an industry are the single largest emitter of greenhouse gas, and our goal is to help our customers use less, spend less, and emit less,” says Jacobs.

For Jacobs, a 46-year-old Goldman Sachs (GS) veteran, smart energy technology is just the wedge to shake up what he calls “an industry in the Dark Ages” while opening new markets for his company, whose stock has been walloped by the one-two punch of Houston’s Hurricane Ike and the credit crunch.

Hurdles, however, remain. Will consumers already suffering from information overload want to obsessively monitor their electricity habit? Will a sweating Houstonite on a 104-degree day say to hell with the cost and crank up the AC anyway? Jacobs isn’t worried. He believes nothing influences behavior better than knowing the true price of what you’re buying.

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