How Smart is Your Texas Electric Meter?
Sitting on my couch one day, patiently trying to get the little one to sleep, I just happened to look out my window and was scared to death. I see a huge man trying to hop over my gate with a special ladder designed for hopping fences! If the limitless thriller movies have taught me anything it is not to go investigate on my own. So what do I do? I go outside to investigate, with the baby in tow. It's funny; the thought of calling the cops or at least taking mace never entered my mind. Thankfully the man was not there to kidnap or kill me; he was doing his job for CenterPoint, installing a smart meter. Apparently he had been hopping over every fence and installing these meters all around my neighborhood. In a state where anyone can own a gun, this seems like a pretty risky profession to me. It's funny because if I hadn't busted the guy installing the meter, I would have never known that anything had changed and I'll bet most people still don't. I'm not saying there wasn't any notice, I am sure there was, but who really reads those notices in the mail? Anyways, now that we have this new device on our house I thought it would be important to figure out what the heck it does and why CenterPoint felt the need to install these in everyone's homes.
In the past, every business and household in Texas is required to have an electric meter on their property. The reason for this is pretty obvious; it's to make sure there is an accurate and consistent way to measure the electricity going into your home and/or business each month. This is helpful for both us, the customers and electric companies because it allows for a more accurate bill each month. And up until now, that is all the meter was designed to do; interestingly enough it has been this same way for about 50 years. But because we live in a world where new technology is always being developed, a more interactive and "smart" meter has been created to not only help the consumer but to help the electricity companies and the electric delivery companies as well.
Something I'd like to point out before I continue is the companies that distribute electricity are called electric delivery companies. Another name for them is TDSP's (I have no clue where they got that acronym from but nonetheless that's what they are known as in the industry). These companies are responsible for quite a lot. They install and maintain the meters, poles and transmission lines. They also are the ones who actually provide the power to the retail companies where you get your power from. An example of this type of company is CenterPoint Energy in Houston and Oncor for Dallas. These companies are completely separate from the company you pay your bill to every month, which in the industry are called retail electricity providers, often called REP's (this acronym makes a lot more sense). This may clear up any confusion some may have - I can't tell you how many people have told me in conversation that they pay their electricity bill to CenterPoint. I think this is because not many people know the difference between the two companies.
Moving on. Since the meter has basically stayed the same for the last 50 years, it was definitely time for an upgrade. Today, we have access to so much information, it is almost scary. Like when I was pregnant, we saw so much in our ultrasounds - her brain, four ventricles of the heart, blood flow in and out of the umbilical cord, you name it, we saw it. It was wonderful and scary at the same time, and far advanced from 50 years ago. My point is that given our technological advances, it is amazing that something like an electric meter hasn't changed until now. The smart meter will continue to measure your electricity usage, but it will also send information back upstream to allow CenterPoint, the REPs, and you, the consumer, make better decisions. I like to compare it to a gas pump. As you pump the gas, you can see the price going up in relation to how many gallons you're pumping. Immediate feedback. This is basically the same idea with the smart meter (except it relates to electricity). You will be able to see your usage and resulting cost on a more real time basis instead of having only one reading at the end of the month. There is a reading every 15 minutes and it's done from a remote location so you get a more accurate and real-time record of your energy usage. With the elimination of meter readers, it actually cuts costs for customers and companies because it reduces costs associated with sending a truck and meter reader to each customer. This device is also helpful if you are working on a budget because if you've budgeted let's say $200 for the month on electricity and you see that half way through the month, you are already at $150, it serves as a warning to let you know that you need to start either cutting back on your usage or you'll at least be prepared to go over budget. Also, another neat function is just like your grocery store savings card keeps record of everything you purchase and you're sent coupons at the end of month for items you buy the most, this meter acts the same way by recording and analyzing your usage history so you can better manage your energy consumption. You can actually see the peaks and valleys of your energy usage and be able to make changes based on the analysis which could in turn save energy and then save money. One additional perk to this new meter is that it sends instant power outage reports to your local TDSP which leads to a much quicker response time.
One thing to clarify is the smart meter doesn't send this analysis straight to you, nor can you go out to your box and get all of the analysis mentioned above. The TDSP receives the information from the meter and then they have their own ways of making that information available to you. For Houston and surrounding areas, CenterPoint Energy is providing home area network capabilities that will allow for customers to review this information online via the web. For Dallas/Fort Worth area Oncor is rolling out their own version called Advanced Metering System (AMS), which began in January 2009. The REPs are also sure to provide tools and services that build on this information, and allow their customers to make better energy decisions.
Since I began working on this piece, I've noticed that there has been more and more coming out in the papers on this smart meter topic. I'm not sure if you've heard, but just this week the government announced they're awarding $3.4 billion in funding to utility companies (and then those companies are going to put in another $4.7 billion in matching funds) in support of 100 projects aimed at modernizing the nation's power grid to make it more "smart. One of those projects is installing the smart meter in homes across the U.S., and I read somewhere that these investments could potentially reduce U.S. electricity use by 4% a year! That's a big number when you think of the millions of households. Also, the government's ultimate goal is to distribute 40 million smart meters over the next few years.
What are the next steps locally for the smart meter roll out? Well, CenterPoint Energy was just awarded a $200 million grant to speed up its work to replace all 2.2 million customer electric meters with the smart meter. These new funds will cut two years off of their 5-year goal. In the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, the TDSP, Oncor, applied for $315 million to speed along its smart grid projects but didn't win any of the grants and so their projects will continue on schedule. If you are in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, you can visit Oncor to see when your area is scheduled to have your meters replaced.
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