We find a certain slyness in the widespread adoption of smart electricity power meters for residential and commercial properties across the country. Some safety concerns have crept up in the past, but we hope most energy companies have solved those issues. Aside from that, however, privacy concerns and other issues present factors to consider when using these devices.
What are Smart Power Meters?
Your electric company or utility provider likely already installed a smart electricity meter in your home or office. Smart power meters allow and facilitate two-way (networked) communication between the meter and the central electrical system. That’s what makes it “smart”. In a nutshell, this means the utility company can read your meter remotely.
Compare that to old meters with their manual dials broken up into 5 clock-like faces that you had to manually read to get the current total kilowatt hours. The digital readout is much easier for both consumers and Pros to read.
Networked meters save the company a trip to your home and keep employees off your property (and away from dogs, horses, and other animals that might present an issue for the meter reader). It also puts a lot of those meter readers out of work. While that’s likely good news for the electric company, it presents some not-so-good news for those legacy meter readers.
Smart Power Meters and the Smart Grid
One advantage for smart meters in and of themselves is that they can more easily integrate into a smart grid. That means the utility (electric company) can purchase and allocate electricity more efficiently. Generally, we consider this a good thing. Smart grids are most certainly the future and integral to the survival of an admittedly outdated American electrical grid.
Now, you might think the savings of all that labor would translate into instant reductions in energy costs, right?
There’s a potential negative side to smart power meters for consumers. Chiefly, that involves the use of smart power meters to monitor energy use as a means to segregate power consumption into periods of time. Like we used to see with cell phones, the utility company can now charge more for prime-time electricity use.
For some time now, government regulators have sought better ways to match consumption with generation. This represents the potential “dark side” of using a smart grid. Legacy meters only tell you the amount of consumption in a given period of time. They don’t tell you when that energy was consumed.
Smart Electricity Meters Report Back to Power Companies
Smart power meters change all that. They give power companies and other regulatory agencies the ability to consider charging more money at certain times of the day. Or, they can vary rates during different times of the year.
Imagine, for example, paying more for your electricity in the summertime if you live down south—or more for electricity in the winter if you live up north. Want to crank up those tools during the middle of the day? Your 15-amp table saw might cost you less if you run it at night (though the neighbors may want to engage you on that one!)
The advent of EV cars brings with it the near certainty of increased nighttime electrical usage. That also raises the importance of utility companies managing electricity usage throughout the day and into the night.
Advantages of Smart Power Meters
- More available information regarding energy use
- Easier meter reading for consumers to better monitor usage habits
- Increases prioritization and resource organization of utility companies during outages and storms for faster response times and restoration of power to customers
- Similarly to the above, the utility company can also perform load-balancing during critical times to maintain power for the widest possible coverage
- Lowers utility company costs through eliminating manual meter readings
- Allows utility company to monitor the entire electrical system in real-time
- Better usage of electric resources results in more efficient use of existing electrical plants
Disadvantages of Smart Meters
- Higher new meter installation costs and fees
- Allows the collection of personal electronic usage data which is ultimately tied to your person
- Requires additional equipment, training, and resources to handle advanced data storage, interpretation, and management
- Increased hardware costs due to advanced electronics
- Requires additional security due to managing a more complex electrical grid
How Many Smart Meters are There in the United States?
We checked with the U.S. EIA website and found that, as of 2019, the United States has over 94.8 million smart meter installations. Of those, around 83.4 million were residential (~88%). As of now, more than half of all U.S. electricity customers have smart meters. Most of this has been driven by state policies and a desire to modernize the U.S. smart grid.
The real jump came with the Smart Grid Investment Grant program under the American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009. That saw millions of smart power electricity meters installed all over the country as a result of these grants.
Are Smart Electricity Meters Dangerous?
In the beginning, some incidents occurred with smart power meters. Now, however, they seem to be settled into widespread use without many reported incidents. Back in 2014, Lakeland Electric (our local power company) had to replace over 10,000 residential Sensus smart meters. These meters had the ability to overheat in a rather spectacular way and had caused more than a few fires across the country.
Initially, the case was said to be caused by a loose base on meters installed outside of homes. Electricity was able to eventually jump through an air gap, creating heat that eventually caused a fire or burning on the home itself. Later, the reason given included the ability for water to seep into the meter and cause a short circuit.
With that smart meter recall, it cost consumers about $3.3 million between the initial costs and the replacement units. And that was before factoring in the labor costs.
With tens of millions of smart meters installed throughout the country, we hardly think it practical that utility companies would allow faulty products onto homes and businesses. Aside from those earlier incidents, the issues of overheating and short-circuiting now occur in only a very small percentage of products. After all, it’s in everyone’s best interest for these smart meters to function as intended.
Our view is that these products are perfectly safe to use.
Final Thoughts on Smart Electricity Meters
So, are smart power meters good for residential electricity consumers? Perhaps… or perhaps not. I mean, if they give me free nights and weekends I’m all in, but if I’m going to see my rates skyrocket based on the fact that I live in Florida and want to run a little AC in the middle of the 101-degree afternoon, well, I may have to rethink how much technology I want to be placed on my home.