Malfunctioning Smart Meters Demonstrate Their Intelligence

The digital “smart meter” replacement of antiquated analog meters in California has caused quite a stir.  These devices have been making headlines since installations began en masse in 2006 because of concerns about health risks related to the wireless technology they use to transmit data and coincidental bill increases.  While an independent contractor hired by the California Public Utilities Commission found that the initial bill increases were due to summertime rate hikes and unusually high summer temperatures, PG&E’s smart meters are in the news again for billing errors. 

This time there are faulty meters generating billing errors when hot weather makes them run faster than normal.  While some skeptics may feel that the meter malfunctions validate their concerns, in fact, it demonstrates a key smart meter benefit: for the first time ever, meters have the ability to alert utilities that they aren’t working properly. 

When Bad News is Good News

In this particular instance, PG&E remotely compared the meters’ clocks with real time. It identified roughly 1,600 out of 2 million meters made by Landis & Gyr that were malfunctioning.  Its other 2 million meters made by General Electric don’t appear to have the problem. 

This is transformative: PG&E can now monitor millions of meters in real time to comprehensively identify and ameliorate problems. 

This isn’t possible with old analog meters, which is one of the many reasons why they’re being replaced. Before smart meters, electricity users who suspected erroneous billing had little evidence to make their claims.  Now the utility can proactively identify and address problems. 

To Put Things in Perspective

While it is inconvenient when any technical device, including a smart meter, is malfunctioning, the rate of problems with analog meters is much higher.  Consider this comparison:

  • Roughly 1,600 out of 2 million meters were found to have internal clocks that run a bit fast in rare hot conditions.  That’s a meter failure rate of 0.08%, or less than one 10th of a percent.  This failure rate is believed to be within industry norms.
  • According to PG&E, analog meters have a failure rate in the range of 3%, which means they fail at rates about 40 times greater than suggested by these faulty smart meters.

PG&E estimates that the overcharge for failed smart meters is less than $40/year, about $3.33 per month.  Again, it is the intelligent meters that enabled PG&E to quantify and correct the problem.  All of the customers with faulty meters will be repaid in full and receive replacement meters.  They will also get $25 for being inconvenienced and receive a free home energy audit.   

Advantages of Smart Meters

Once smart meters have been fully deployed, utilities will be able to remotely and in real-time monitor all meters in their service territory, isolating malfunctions with precision and speed.  What does that mean for consumers?  More reliable service and quick resolution when problems arise. 

You might wonder why EDF, an environmental advocacy group, is commenting on this.  Smart meters are key to delivering the environmental and public health benefits of the smart grid

EDF will soon be releasing a smart grid evaluation framework targeted at the plans that PG&E, San Diego Gas & Electric, and Southern California Edison owe the state by July 1, 2011.

We will then be publicly evaluating those plans for their ability to deliver benefits including: increased effectiveness and reduced costs of energy efficiency and other electricity conservation programs; integration of electric vehicles and intermittent renewable electricity generation resources, such as rooftop solar panels.

Stay tuned.

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  1. Inside9
    Posted May 16, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Get a clue. This technocrap is the asbestos of our time.

    Energy planners who admire the theory behind smartmeters refuse to acknowledge the fact that real people in large numbers are having their health and well-being compromised. There is no justification for allowing this, NONE. I have spoken to them, they are real. They could be your mother, sister or wife. In this case, the scientific method was abandoned in the face of money. In California there were no pilot studies of physiological effects, no environmental reports just greed unabated.

    The Roman Empire did not have the technology to realize that lead in their pipes and diets was poisoning the citizenry, but we now know it was happening. The “benefits of smartmeters” are still theoretical but the observed suffering is real and well documented. A benevolent government would stop in the face of thousands of negative reports and consider other alternatives in promoting energy efficiency. Science does not always require mortality statistics as part of its proof. A precautionary approach is required. Money does not necessitate brutality!!

  2. Eric Sutherland
    Posted May 24, 2011 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    The “benefits of smartmeters” are not theoretical, they are non-existant.

    The same is true of most of the hype surrounding ‘smart grid’ in general. It’s the corn ethanol of the next decade.

    Sure, there is some cost savings associated with smart meters. It comes from shedding jobs. Other than that, nothing.

    IF a price were placed on carbon emissions, the way electric utilities are regulated was overhauled and the entire paradigm of providing infininte electric power to anyone and everyone who can pay the bill was replaced with something else,
    THEN there might be some real world benefit to smart grid.

    However, even the most progressive service territories in the country with the opportunity to make these changes don’t do it. Look at the muni’s that have tried smart meters. They end up laying off their meter readers to save ratepayers money (but it never shows a positve ROI), then they spend tax revenues on economic development to create jobs.

    EDF is being sucked in here by the cornucopian siren. I urge the organization to take a closer look. For one thing, the smart utilities managers have made minimal investments supplying meters only to customers that are willing to participate in load shaping. They use the pulbic internet instead of expensive, redundant wireless networks whose heath inpacts are less than determinate.

    For many communities, smart meters are the furthest thing from ‘green’ you can get. Investor owned utilities like PG&E love ’em because they make shareholders money with the CPUC’s blessing.

    Remember, corn ethanol was once embraced as nothing short of the salvation of mankind as well.

    Eric Sutherland
    Fort Collins, CO

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