Smart meters are here. Across the country, electric utilities are replacing the traditional electric meter they have used to record household electricity use for the past 50 years or so. The familiar electric meter found on the side of most homes is being updated with a digital smart meter. A recent survey by the Institute for Electric Efficiency, Washington, D.C., found that, as of September 2011, more than 20 percent of homes in the country have a smart meter. Based on utility projections, more than half of all the homes in the nation will have a new smart meter within three years.
How Smart Meters Work
What is a smart electric meter? From a few feet away, the smart meter looks similar to the old analog meter it is replacing, but that is where the similarity ends.
The old meter is a mechanical device that uses spinning dials to record a home’s electricity use. At the end of the month, the utility sends someone out to manually read the dials to determine how much electricity the home consumed during the past month.
A smart meter is an electronic device that uses a digital screen to show how much electricity a home is using. The smart meter can record this usage on an hourly or even quarter-hour basis. The meter then sends this information automatically back to the utility.
Down the road, smart meters will open the door to dynamic electricity pricing, which reflects the actual demand for electricity in near real time. Today, homeowners pay the same price for electricity regardless of the demand for it, but electricity demand varies throughout the day and year. With a smart meter, a utility will be able to offer its customers a bill credit in return for reducing their demand during those peak hours. This in turn will help the utility defer the need to build more power plants and transmission lines.
Smarter Is Better
The smart meter returns benefits for the homeowner as soon as it is switched on. A major benefit is the smart meter can automatically notify the utility when a house loses power, whereas with the old electric meter homeowners had to call the utility to tell it they had lost power.
The smart meter gives utilities a head start in getting repair trucks on the road, targeting trouble spots and fixing them. It also is especially important when no one is home, as well as for vacation-home owners who can be away for long periods. In these instances, smart meters can help reduce or even prevent damage that can result from a power outage, such as pipes freezing in the winter or refrigerated/frozen food spoiling.
In the not-too-distant future, smart meters will offer more benefits for homeowners. In some parts of the country, homeowners can now go online to a utility website to see how much electricity their home has used in the previous day or even the previous hour.
In California, for example, two of the state’s largest utilities have launched a “green button” feature on their websites that enables homeowners to download details of their daily electricity usage. Texas has launched a statewide website—the Smart Meter Texas Portal—where consumers can sign into a password-protected account to get detailed views of their home’s electric usage history in 13-month, 30-day or 24-hour snapshots down to 15-minute intervals.
Some manufacturers also have begun offering in-home displays that communicate wirelessly with the smart meter, providing homeowners with almost instantaneous feedback about their home’s electricity use. These displays, which are about the size of a thermostat, can show the homeowner total household electricity use at a particular moment, as well as its cost, along with energy-use trends, such as how much electricity the home used during the previous day, week or month.
Studies have revealed this awareness about their home’s electricity use can motivate homeowners to take simple steps, such as turning off unnecessary lights or adjusting thermostats, to use electricity more efficiently. By doing so, they typically lower their monthly energy bill by around 5 percent.