6/23/19 - By Tux TurkelStaff Writer
The promise was that smart meters would give home customers real-time information on electricity costs, so they could shift power use to when it’s less expensive. Dry your clothes at 10 p.m. and save a few cents. To encourage that outcome, taxpayers chipped in $96 million to install smart meters.
But what few people understood at the time was that the potential couldn’t be realized until CMP upgraded its vintage billing system. Additionally, CMP only delivers the power to 620,000 Mainers’ homes. The companies that generate electricity also had to buy-in to real-time pricing.
CMP’s upgrade was deferred and delayed for years. When SmartCare, the new billing system, was finally launched in 2017, it was plagued with problems and complaints that are still being resolved.
And real-time pricing for home customers? It doesn’t exist in Maine.
The reasons why are complicated.
First, CMP had to install smart meters, which digitally measure and transmit electricity use by the hour. The meters can upload a wealth of detailed data about electricity use over the internet, allowing for things like charging different rates at different hours. They also reduce the need to build new power plants, or run older generators that are less efficient and emit more pollution.
Then CMP had to upgrade its billing system so the digital meters could communicate with the system that tracks and bills customers for their electricity use. Those changes are now in place.
But energy suppliers are not. Electricity suppliers negotiate their prices on a regional grid. Consumers have the option of buying their electricity from a generator whose prices change weekly or monthly, known as competitive energy suppliers. But the vast of majority of Mainers – about 85 percent – use a default, government-approved “standard offer” for their electricity provider. Those prices only change once a year.
Without pricing flexibility from energy suppliers, there’s no opportunity to offer real-time pricing to consumers......................................
In states where utilities still both generate and distribute power, options are emerging that use wireless technology not imagined in 2010 — smart thermostats. In New York, ConEdison offers customers rebates if they install smart thermostats that let the company bump up the setting on their air conditioners a few degrees, for up to four hours on the hottest summer days. Customers can manually override the change, if they want. They just don’t get the savings.
When or if similar programs come to Maine also will depend on whether they can be designed so that customers feel it’s worth the trouble to change their behaviors or learn new routines, Brooks said.
“No one wants to go through the brain damage to figure out how to save 50 cents,” he said.
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A word of advice, when you see a new program come along with a name that contains a word like "Smart" or "Community", put up your guard and hang onto your wallet.
Wind is potentially an electric grid keeper's worst nightmare because the grid keeper must match electrical supply with electrical demand, and erratic wind holds too many surpises. For example, the whole state of Maine could be experiencing strong winds and then rather suddenly, the wind dies down.
When the supply can't be depended upon as it can with a source like natural gas, an alternate way to match up supply and demand is to control the demand. Enter the smart meter.
"A smart grid would allow the integration of variable energy sources like wind and solar. For example, if electricity output dropped suddenly due to a change in wind generation, the grid could dim the lights in big box stores by 20%, a change most people don't perceive, say Don Von Dollen, program manager for the IntelliGrid project at the Electric Power Research Institute".
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