Smart Meters: The Key to Leveraging the Smart Grid

Smart Meters: The Key to Leveraging the Smart Grid

The smart grid remains “buzzing” with potential. One aspect driving the benefits home for customers (quite literally) is what the innovation has done for metering. Smart meters—through an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI)—are fast becoming beacons of efficiency and cost savings, not just for utilities but for customers as well.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that, by 2013, U.S. electric utilities had already installed nearly 52 million smart meters, with nearly 90 percent being residential customer installations.1 With so many smart meters in use, measurable benefits are now being reported. According to Dan Schultz, sales director of automation at Anixter, the writing is on the wall.

“There’s no doubt that smart metering is transforming the power industry and improving the customer experience,” he says. Schultz goes on to point out several areas that have made smart meters the wave of the future.

Reduced Service Calls and Truck Rolls

“Smart meters are now endpoint sensors,” Schultz explains. “Customer service representatives can now ‘see’ what’s happening all the way to the meter without sending crews to investigate.”

According to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, less than 20 percent of affected customers will report an outage (many aren’t home with the outage occurs or assume that the outage has already been reported). With smart meters, that’s not a problem. As an AMI gathers and sends data, it can be processed and analyzed using the tracing and prediction analysis functions of a real-time distribution network model.2

In other words, the outage location can be pinpointed and the extent of the outage can be calculated without customers alerting the utility at all.

“There’s no doubt that smart metering is transforming the power industry and improving the customer experience.”

Lower Maintenance Costs

When the U.S. Department of Energy first studied the advantages of an AMI, it reported that meter reading costs alone were up to 4 percent of a utility’s total distribution system operations and maintenance costs.

Using smart meters can save up to 77% in operations costs and 60% in the cost of vehicle deployment.3

“In the past, thousands of meters were blindly checked for wear and tear and other maintenance issues regularly. It would take years to check each one,” Schultz explains. “Now metrics can be set so that a ‘red flag’ is raised when a meter is underperforming or needs to be checked. The result is a significant reduction in operational cost.”

Reduced Line Loss

As much as $6 billion worth of electricity is stolen each year.4

Schultz says that the smart grid has curtailed the problem of theft and others that lead to line loss. “Theft, in particular, was hard to spot without crews out in the field noticing it,” he explains. “But now, when someone bypasses a smart meter, analytics will flag the problem immediately. In fact, most utilities are finding out now—thanks to advanced analytics—that their line loss is much higher than they ever knew.”

Technical line loss—for reasons other than theft—is also dramatically reduced with smart meters, which are saving customers from more than just higher electric bills. According to Schultz, smart meters will alert a utility when voltage isn’t high or consistent enough, a problem that can burn out motors or cause other problems with end customers’ machinery and equipment.

Better Customer Service

Utilities like Commonwealth Edison have touted improved customer service as a central benefit to installing smart meters.5 Many of these utilities offer customers access to online energy-management tools like checking the status of outages or starting and stopping service with the click of a button. Now that these meters receive data as well as send it, high-usage alerts and weekly electricity usage summaries can be sent to help manage electric bills. Some even offer incentives like credit on electric bills when customers voluntarily reduce electricity usage.

“Since the data is updated daily instead of monthly, there is so much more utilities can do with the information to help make customers smart consumers,” Schultz says. And being smart consumers—with the power to help shape their own energy usage—is something that study after study has shown utility customers want.6

For utilities—and their customers— knowledge is power. The smart grid has opened the door for even basic products like meters to help make that a reality by providing data that unlocks remarkable advantages for both utilities and their customers.