Smart Meters and Efficiency

Smart meters are being promoted as a key part of a strategy for improving energy efficiency. Some utilities, such as Commonwealth Edison, have sold state legislatures a bill of goods so that utilities can charge customers for installing smart meters.

Whether smart meters can improve energy efficiency is questionable, but they do save utilities money.

In Illinois, Commonwealth Edison wins both ways, charging customers higher rates while cutting costs.

The main savings come from eliminating meter readers. Advanced meters can be read at the utility’s office so there is no need to send a person to people’s homes to read the meter.

Smart meters also make it easier for utilities to identify the location of faults, such as downed power lines. This results in quicker fixes and shorter outages for customers, but it doesn’t improve energy efficiency.

Some magazines, such as energybiz, persist on touting smart meters as a way to improve energy efficiency.

A recent article described how smart meters could help utilities maintain required voltage levels more precisely. Voltage is usually maintained between 114 and 126 volts at the home, office or factory. (Appliance motors are designed to operate at no less than 110 volts and a 4 volt line drop in the home would lower a 114 volt input to 110 volts.)

Utilities use voltage regulators, essentially a type of transformer, to maintain voltages within this band. Because it’s currently difficult to know precisely the voltage level at homes, etc., utilities err on the high side and keep the voltage level above 120. (See note.)

The energybiz article claimed that smart meters could identify precise voltage levels at homes, etc., thereby allowing utilities to maintain voltage levels closer to 114 volts which would reduce the power consumed, and result in improved energy efficiency. (Power equals volts times current, with an adjustment for power factor.)

But why not maintain the voltage at closer to 120 volts? This would allow motors to run closer to their rated horsepower and light bulbs or lamps to shine brighter.

In other words, the claim of improved energy efficiency is a shell game that benefits the utility rather than the consumer.

The other claim made by advocates for smart meters is that they would allow homeowners to reduce the amount of electricity they use and save money. This assumes customers would be charged more per kilowatt-hour during peak hours and less during off-peak hours (typically at night).

The claim is spurious since there are very few ways people can change their use of electricity. Customers could use less air conditioning by raising the thermostat and keeping the house warmer in the summer, while lowering the thermostat in the winter and keeping the house cooler.

It also assumes people can shift usage from peak to off-peak hours, but food needs to be cooked at meal time, refrigerators need to run during the day and lights are needed on cloudy days. Theoretically dishes could be washed at night, as could laundry and cloths driers, but this isn’t convenient for most people.

In short, there aren’t very many ways for homeowners to shift their use of electricity from peak to off-peak hours, certainly not enough to justify charging customers for installing smart meters.

A respondent in Florida said, “He couldn’t save anymore unless he switched to candle light”.

There was also a proposal in California to require utilities to use smart meters to control the thermostat in people’s homes, which would facilitate controlling air conditioning and heating loads, especially when there was a need to shave load during periods of peak usage.  Thus far, this bad idea hasn’t been adopted. If the utility can control the thermostat in people’s homes, it’s conceivable government could mandate the high and low temperatures in people’s homes.

Some individuals have claimed that radio waves (electromagnetic fields) emanating from smart meters could affect people’s health, but this is not true, and is no reason to prevent the installation of smart meters.

There are problems with the way in which smart meters are being promoted, but fear of health affects shouldn’t deter their installation.

Advanced meter installations aren’t going to result in large improvements in energy efficiency, though they may lower costs for utilities and improve reliability for customers.


For those who are interested, there is a 2005 report issued by Global Energy Partners entitled, “Evaluation of the Utility Distribution System Efficiency Initiative.”

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