Lincoln utility company explores implementing controversial smart meters

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February 16, 2012 - 6:00pm

On October 27, 2009, President Barack Obama announced the largest energy grid modernization investment in US history as part of the Economic Recovery Act. In the speech Obama set his sights on a central piece of smart grid technology- an electrical meter, commonly referred to as a "smart meter."

"Now let me explain what's going on with these smart meters," Obama said. "Smart meters will allow you to actually monitor how much energy your family is using by the month, by the week, by the date or even by the hour. So coupled with other technologies, this is going to help you manage your electricity use and your budget at the same time."

 

Smart meters allow for two-way communication between the meter and a power company, sending readings in different time intervals. Meanwhile, the power company is able to send commands back to the meter remotely.


The intention for the technology was to do just that, and ultimately replace traditional analog, or if you will, "dumb" meters. Here's how it would work: instead of relying on a meter reader to visit your home and take readings, a smart meter would allow for two-way communication between the meter and a power company, sending readings in different time intervals. Meanwhile, the power company would able to send commands back to the meter remotely . The devices have been hailed by numerous public utilities as being the new face of energy consumption.

But for many, the devices have done nothing more than send out the wrong kind of signals.

Former University of Nebraska-Lincoln Alumni Association president Bryan Van Deun considers himself an informed and concerned citizen. He's followed the implementation of smart meters extensively.

"We've often referred to the home being our castle, where we're protected from the outside world," Van Deun explained. "With smart meters, we're no longer protected."

Van Deun pointed to states like California, where smart meter technology was implemented on a wide-scale, mandatory basis. The results, he said, have left much to be desired.

Customers saw their energy prices begin to jump. Pacific Gas & Electric blamed the high bills on hot weather throughout the state, but consumers began to suspect their newly-installed meters. It wasn't long before Californians began wondering how much monitoring the power companies were really doing, and where that data was going.

"The privacy issues are becoming more and more of concern as things in the bigger society have happened," said Van Deun. "For example, Google is bidding on this meter data to better make it possible to specifically market to you as an individual user. The downside to that is they can also tell when you're home, what you're doing in your home, what your patterns are and what your lifestyle is. These are all things we don't want other people to know."

Van Deun soon turned his attention back home when he was surprised to hear Lincoln Electric System, or LES, was exploring the same controversial technology.

LES is testing 12 smart meters at their service center lab in Lincoln. Although requests by NET News to visit the lab were denied, Todd Hall, vice president of Customer Services, visited the NET studios to discuss LES' interest in the technology.

"We are just at the very beginning stages of our investigation," he said. "We hear really strong, positive comments, and we've heard comments that are less than positive Not so much from the technologists, but, to some degree, from some folks who have a concern for wi-fi and radio frequency communication - which is the basis of how the new meters that we would install communicate back to LES and then back to the consumer, with information on how they're using their energy and what they can do to save money."

Hall said LES has acknowledged criticism present on a local level and that the organization has made attempts to reach out to those individuals.


What types of electric meters does LES have today?

LES has:

  • 85,000 Analog (electromechanical)
  • 35,000 digital
  • 8,250 Digital OMR

"We have had some conversations with a small group of folks here in town - in Lincoln and Lancaster County - that have expressed their concerns as it relates to the radio frequency communication," he said. "Anything that involves our community, we try to engage them in detail and have that dialogue so we can gather that conversation and educate each other on what some of the concerns, some of the issues, and some of the wants of new technology."

But that's a notion Van Deun rejects. He said that while he and other associates visited LES to discuss their concerns, they felt they weren't going to be taken into account. He said he'd like to see more research done to address the potential cost and privacy concerns before LES decides to implement smart meter technology in Lancaster Country.

In 2007, Nebraska Public Power District, which caters to large rural sections of the state, began installing smart meters in Milford and Seward. Since then, the public power company has replaced large amounts of analog meters, with the ultimate goal being to install nearly 70,000 meters in their service area by 2015.

As for LES, Hall said that decision is still a few years off. In the meantime, the power company would continue further research with the meters.

"The thing I think that is going to be important is that we need to verify the type of technology we want to pursue, what the benefit of that technology will be, what the cost of that technology will be," he said. "Part of our investigation is going through that analysis to determine what the impact will be. We need to be cautious, we need to be prudent about how we do our investigation and we need to verify how we go through that process."

Correction, 02/17/12: The original version of this story misidentified Bryan Van Deun's title. NET News regrets the error.

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