Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility serving most of Northern California, was forced to replace a number of so-called “smart meters” destroyed by a power surge in late August. The resulting outage has led even proponents of the technology to question the government mandates ordering the meters’ installation without allowing time to implement necessary precautions against surges.
According to the Palo Alto Daily News, an August 25 storm caused a tree branch to fall on power lines, which resulted in a doubling or tripling of energy in the local distribution system. The surge destroyed an unspecified number—described as “significant” by PG&E spokesman Joe Molica—of the digital meters.
Molica told the newspaper that smart meters aren’t “any less robust” than the analog versions they replaced. He continued, “A voltage surge can damage a meter, whether it’s a Smart Meter or an (analog one).… Any time you get a power surge of approximately two to three times the energy you would normally experience, you have to expect that.”
More Intelligent Electricity Use
Smart meters are a major component of a larger effort referred to as the Smart Grid. The purpose of the technologies is simple: to get consumers to use less energy, especially during high demand periods, and to minimize power outages.
California is in the midst of distributing smart meters to all households and businesses over the next few years, under mandatory programs ordered by the state’s Public Utility Commission.
“The goal of implementing smart grid technology is to generate, transmit, and distribute electricity more intelligently, using two-way digital communication between makers, system controllers, and users,” said Thomas Tanton, a principal of T2 & Associates, a California-based energy technology and policy consulting group. Tanton and other smart meter proponents claim more reliable and affordable electricity will result, with consumers able to take advantage of daily and seasonal time differences in electricity costs.
Failure of Government Mandates
As many as 230 Palo Alto customers were left temporarily without power while PG&E performed repairs, which were complicated by power lines knocked down later by the storm over Highway 101. PG&E sent crews from home to home and business to business inspecting circuit panels and smart meters for damage. Power was restored for the majority of customers by Friday afternoon.
Tanton says although he recognizes and advocates for the benefits of smart meters, the government mandates failed to cover such contingencies as power outages brought on by heavy weather.
“Smart meters are crucial to various demand side-management programs, including time-of-use pricing, which charges consumers more per kilowatt hour during periods of high demand and, conversely, less during periods of low demand,” said Tanton.
“Utilities are required to install the meters, and customers have no choice but to have the meters placed on their homes and businesses,” Tanton said, adding, “This is an ironic feature of a program touted as enabling customer choice.”
Tanton pointed to another flaw in the government’s plan. “A key pricing aspect necessary for demand management and time-of-use pricing is not widely available. Mandatory real-time pricing without bill protection has to wait until 2020 under existing state law,” he said. “Utility-controllable thermostats—originally deemed necessary for positive economics—were removed from the state’s regulatory options a year ago because of public protests.”
Vagaries of Electricity
Smart meters allow utilities to check energy use remotely, eliminating the need for employing meter readers who travel from site to site. The meters can avert the need for call-ins in the event of power outages, by alerting repair crews about when and where to respond. They can be connected to equipment that shows customers when rates are highest (time of use), allowing households and other consumers to shift power use to less-costly periods.
Smart meters also give utilities more control over demand by enabling them to curtail certain uses at customer sites. There are approximately eight million smart electric meters deployed in the United States, and that count will jump sevenfold by 2019, according to the Institute for Electric Efficiency in Washington.
But as the East Palo Alto event shows, the meters still are susceptible to the vagaries of the electricity grid.
Paul Chesser, executive director of the American Tradition Institute, a pro-market, small-government research and education institution, says “smart meters and smart grids are probably a good idea, but this event [in East Palo Alto] shows the need to have free and open markets for advanced technology.”
Chesser added, “Smart meters and smart grids need to focus on consumer choice and empowerment. How hard would it have been for an entrepreneur to offer surge protectors just like most everybody has on their PC? When a government-driven monopoly is forced into deploying the latest fad, often simple protections are forgotten.”
Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of Infotech & Telecom News.
“East Palo Alto Power Surge Destroys ‘Significant’ Number of Smart Meters,” Bonnie Eslinger, Palo Alto Daily News, August 27, 2011: http://www.mercurynews.com/peninsula/ci_18769012
“Illinois Smart Meters May Save Customers $2.8 Billion,” Bruce Edward Walker, Infotech & Telecom News, October 2011: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2011/09/06/illinois-smart-meters-may-save-customers-28-billion
“Smart Metering of Utilities on Rise in U.S.,” Phil Britt, Infotech & Telecom News, August 2011: http://news.heartland.org/policy-documents/smart-metering-utilities-rise-us
“Debate Over California Smart Meters Continues,” Tabassum Rahmani, Infotech & Telecom News, March 2011: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/debate-over-california-smart-meters-continues
“Marin County Votes to Ban Smart Meters,” Alyssa Carducci, Infotech & Telecom News, February 2011: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2011/02/07/marin-county-votes-ban-smart-meters