KIUC prepares to roll out smart meters

LIHU‘E — Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative will soon embark on an island-wide program to change all existing residential and commercial electric meters to smart meters.

“These smart meters are just meters with communications devices,” said Mike Yamane, KIUC’s recently appointed chief of operations, during the co-op’s third-quarter meeting Thursday in Kapa‘a. “So the basic question is why are we doing this? We’re doing this to help us serve you better with technology.”

KIUC anticipates the five-year project to swap out all of the island’s 33,000 commercial and residential electric meters and install related communications infrastructure will begin in 2012. It will take two years to complete the installations, Yamane said, and three years to gather and analyze data.

Capabilities

The advantages of smart meters include greater accuracy in meter reading, fewer estimated bills, billing date flexibility, energy consumption monitoring, improved power quality, faster outage restoration and potential energy savings, KIUC officials said.

Smart meters, which are quipped with Wi-Fi communication devices, permit the co-op to do frequent meter readings remotely. The average frequency of readings is approximately eight times per day, Yamane said.  By frequently gathering usage data, the co-op can better gauge peak load rates and correct grid inefficiencies, according to KIUC.

If requested, the co-op will be able to provide customers with more detailed information about their electricity consumption, such as a home’s or business’ peak usage times on a given day, without having a technician visit their home.

The meters also allow for add-on technology such as Demand Response Load Control modules and Home Area Networking In-Home Display devices. KIUC plans to pilot these systems in 1,000 homes. Yamane said the co-op has yet to decide how it will choose participants, but they will be volunteers.

A DRLC module is a mechanism attached to an appliance or component to manage energy consumption relative to general supply conditions. For example, if the device were attached to a dishwasher, it could prevent the dishwasher from operating during peak load times. The technology helps utility companies avoid outages, manage demand peaks and reduce stress on the grid, according to manufacturers.                                                                                       

“KIUC will be installing 500 DRLC modules, either being water heater control or thermostat control,” Yamane said. “We haven’t decided how we’re going to pick the group, but it will be a voluntary group and this is just to test the effectiveness for reducing our demand at peak times, if we’re running short of generation.”

An In-Home Display device is a wall-mounted display screen that allows customers to view real-time information such as changing electricity rates, their energy bill and their usage profile. It is designed to raise customers’ awareness of energy consumption.

“Basically, they’re little devices that will be on your wall and you can see how much power you’re using at the time,” Yamane said. “What we’re trying to see is how effective it is for members for saving them money. If you can see how much energy you’re using, you can try to use less.”

KIUC plans to install 500 IHD devices on the homes of select volunteers following the roll out of the Advanced Metering Infrastructure, he said, adding that the AMI is a “smarter grid system compared to the 30-year-old current system.”

Another feature of the smart meters is reduced outage and restoration time, he said. Currently, utility can only tell when a particular neighborhood or street is without power. Individual homeowners often have to call KIUC to let them know when power is down. With smart meters, he said, the co-op can tell when a particular house is without power and respond within a shorter period. It will not reduce outages, Yamane said.

Smart meters also allow utility companies to disconnect customers’ power supply remotely.

One of the money-saving advantages of the new technology involves personnel and equipment, Yamane said.

“Right now, we have meter readers going out throughout the island reading meters,” he said. “We save all that time and expense. The system will read the meters at a prerecorded time that we choose and we do a download, and then we’re done. We won’t have the expense of fuel, of maintenance on trucks and personnel.”

The co-op’s six meter readers will not be laid off, however, he said. KIUC plans to transfer the employees to other departments, such as administration.

For now, “this is just a general notification letting you know how great this is,” Yamane said. “When installers hit a neighborhood, you will receive a door hanger and a mailer saying, ‘It’s here, it’s us, and we’re pretty much just replacing the meter.’”

Employees and members from a vendor team, NRCA, will be replacing the meters. During installation, service will be interrupted for a few minutes, he said.

“There is no cost to ratepayers for the new smart meters,” Yam said; however, he also said “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Costs

In 2009, 27 electric cooperatives, including KIUC, received a $33.9 million matching grant from the Department of Energy through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for Smart Grid Demonstration Projects.

The grant will cover half of KIUC’s $11 million project cost, and it requires the co-op to do “some data reporting on the effectiveness of the smart grid,” Yamane said.

KIUC will fund the other $5.5 million, spokeswoman Anne Barnes said Monday.

KIUC contracted the project to the vendor, NRCA, through a competitive bid process, Bissell said.

Once the meters are installed, members will continue stay on the same rate class as they have in the past, according to KIUC literature.

Controversy

On the Mainland, some utility companies have faced community opposition against smart meters for reasons ranging from radio frequency sensitivity to privacy concerns to accuracy in billing.

In Santa Cruz County, Calif., for example, the Board of Supervisors extended a year-long moratorium on smart meter installations, the New York Times reported in January. Officials in Marin County, Calif., also approved a ban on smart meters.

The NYT article states that although there is government-provided scientific data on the health concerns and third-party research confirming billing accuracy, privacy worries can be answered only by assurances from utility companies, and those concerned about privacy tend to have little faith in corporate assurances.

Health concerns focus on a phenomenon known as “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” in which people claim that radiation from cellphones, WiFi systems or smart meters causes them to suffer dizziness, fatigue, headaches, sleeplessness or heart palpitations, NYT reported. However, government research found no link between health problems and common levels of electromagnetic radiation.

Yamane said RF waves produced by smart meters are no different from a WalMart baby monitor or any other wireless device, such as cell phones and home WiFi. 

“Except it’s on for a lot less time,” he said. “It goes on maybe 8 times a day for 1 second. So not only is it low power, it hardly is ever on. … It operates on the same frequency as a lot of commercial products. It’s called an unlicensed frequency because it allows pretty much any manufacturer to use it to develop any type of home gadgets used in wireless communications.”

In terms of billing accuracy, he said if a utility bill is suddenly higher, “to us that’s no different than you have your meter right now and your bill comes in and its high right now. We’ll deal with it the same way. Call it in. We’ll test the meter, because it’s no different than another meter. It reads the same way, the only difference is the data transfer is not through a meter reader. It’s through the wireless communication.”

In terms of privacy, Yamane said smart meters record an electronic kilowatt reading, the date and time of energy usage, the overall peak demand and any loss of power, that’s all.

When asked if smart meters can tell when a person is using specific appliances, he said no.

“If someone can tell me how that works, I’ll be glad to address it. As an engineer, I don’t know really how that is possible,” he said.

When asked if the co-op will share members’ data, he said, “Right now, the data that we collect, based on your request, is only for you to see unless you give specific written permission. KIUC will not share members’ usage information without members’ written consent.”

However, opposition to smart meters on the Garden Island has already begun. A resident has provided The Garden Island with a copy of an opt-out email for KIUC, refusing smart meter installation.

In brief, it states: “I forbid, refuse and deny consent of any installation and use of any monitoring, eavesdropping and surveillance devices on my property, my place of residence and my place of occupancy. That applies to and includes ‘Smart Meters’ and activity monitoring devices of any and all kinds.

“Any attempt to install any such device directed at me, other inhabitants, guests, my property or residence will constitute trespass, stalking, wiretapping and unlawful surveillance, all prohibited and punishable by law through criminal and civil complaints.”

Option to opt out

Yamane said KIUC is striving for 100 percent participation with the program.

“We have to weight efficiency,” he said. “It makes more sense for everyone to have it. It doesn’t make sense to send one meter reader out to one house because they don’t want to put it on.”

Nonetheless, KIUC management and the Board of Directors will be discussing an opt-out program, he said. If the co-op chooses to offer the option, “there will be a cost associated with the member’s decision not to receive a smart meter.”

How much a member would be charged and how often has not yet been decided, KIUC CEO David Bissell said. “I think it would prohibitively expensive to have a meter reader come out to your house once a month, and they’re only coming to your house.”

He said it would be likely that KIUC would provide an estimated bill most months, and an actual meter reader would visit only a couple times a year to get a reading. “Otherwise it would just be too expensive.”

Visit www.kiuc.coop for more information about KIUC and the smart meter program.

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