Smart Meters

Utility boards moving to smart meters

By Hugh G. Willett

They may not be able to "spy on you" or "fry your brain" but a new generation of electric power meters could help you save money on your electric bill.

They're called "smart meters" and you may already have one at your home.

Lenoir City Utilities Board has installed 24,000 of the new meters at about $100 apiece. Knoxville Utilities Board has a pilot program to introduce smart meters and plans to expand use of the technology in the coming years.

LCUB plans to install about 40,000 more meters this year at a rate of 500 to 600 per week, according to Craig Dunn, manager of the electric department at the utility.

The primary motive behind installing the devices, which can monitor power usage remotely, is to save on the cost of sending meter readers around to every customer, Dunn said.

There are also benefits to the customer, including the ability to spot outages, to dispatch service quickly and to lower monthly electric bills.

Within the next few years LCUB and other utilities will be changing their billing schedule to differentiate between peak and off peak power usage. TVA already charges utilities different rates for power based on demand cycles.

Power costs more during peak demand times, such as the middle of the day. Utilities average rates to arrive at a figure that reflects both peak and off peak usage.

Because the new meters can monitor power usage hourly, customers will be able to take advantage of lower cost power by scheduling their usage during non-peak periods.

Although most utilities agree on the benefits of the new meters, in the minds of some customers, a shadow hangs over the concept.

LCUB doesn't use the term "smart meter" because of all the negative and often misleading information available on the Internet concerning the technology, Dunn said.

The meters have been controversial in places such as California, where they are suspected of being surveillance devices and health hazards, or in New Hampshire, where opponents of the technology have coined the phrase "Live Free or Fry."

"There's a whole lot of Internet chatter about smart meters. I've researched it, and I just don't find it to be credible," said Dunn, a licensed professional engineer.

The meters broadcast on a 900 MHz frequency typical of portable phones. Each meter transmits a five-digit code reflecting power usage for less than a second once every hour or about 24 seconds of transmitting time every day, Dunn said.

"It's a very low exposure time," he said.

Some are not sure about the health risks associated with the meters.

In January two memorandums one from the Santa Cruz, Calif., Health Office and another from the Academy of Environmental Medicine indicated that the radio frequency fields emitted from smart meters posed a risk. The reports indicated that while thermal hazards caused by RF fields were well explored, not enough was known about the non-thermal effects of RF fields.

The Electric Power Research Institute offered additional perspective on the two reports, noting that neither study took into account the vast wealth of information regarding RF that has been collected over nearly half a century of study.

Another concern regarding the meters is that they be used to "spy" on a customer's habits by analyzing power usage. According to Dunn, the current level of technology can only track power usage, not what kind of device is being used.