Smart grid, smart meters and lots of learning ahead: What consumers ought to know

It hasn’t been the smoothest Nice-to-meet-you.

Since Central Maine Power began installing its new smart meters a month ago, Mainers have been introduced to the concept of a “smart grid” via publicized fears of cancer-causing airwaves, cyber spying and homes catching on fire.

“Starting off with that kind of negative impact, it’s hard to get out of that hole, to get a neutral response,” Public Advocate Richard Davies said.

Why coming around to neutral could be important: There’s so much more to come.

Smart meters, bound for Lewiston-Auburn late next year, have issues that haven’t gotten much attention: Consumers will have to spend $100-plus to get a bead on their electricity usage in real time, one of its touted benefits. And there’s a chance bills will go up slightly because the new technology is that much more accurate.

The meters are part of a new era.

And state officials say Maine’s smart grid — an electric system that’s less costly for consumers, more efficient, more environmentally friendly — is also going to mean changes and choices.

It will mean charging your electric car when power is cheapest — and plugging it back in to feed the grid when power gets pricey.

It will mean smart appliances that shut off when rates get too high or shut off remotely whenever you ask.

It will mean addressing concerns: The Public Advocate’s Office is already hearing from people worried that the government is going to flick off their refrigerators, like it or not.

It also means a steep, lingo-filled learning curve.

“Unless you’re technically involved in the field or have some sort of strange interest in electricity, you’re not likely to pay attention to it very much,” said Rich Silkman, one of the partners at GridSolar, petitioning to be the first smart grid operator for Maine.

“Smart meters are like the tip of the iceberg for smart grid,” Silkman said, "receiving all the attention, but it’s not necessarily where ultimately most of the value of the smart grid may come in.”

Some developments could take a decade; others lie right around the corner, including one that could make Lewiston a sort of smart-grid test site.

Getting smart

In a consumer handout, the U.S. Department of Energy says the nation has to smarten its collective grids to get with the 21st century, save money now wasted on outages ($150 billion a year), reduce oil reliance and get a handle on “spiraling electricity rates.”

The Massachusetts Smart Grid Innovators Collaborative estimates there are $560 million in ongoing investments and projects around New England.

CMP’s $1.4 billion project upgrading transmission lines is partly for smart-grid reasons, Davies said. The upgrade will add more data points to monitor power flow. Part of being smart is boosting electricity as needed, drawing production down when it’s not and leveling off demand by incentivizing consumers to avoid heavy use at peak times (running a dryer earlier or later in the day, for instance.)

Peak time, Davies said, is the most expensive and most polluting.

Upgrades will make the lines more ready to integrate renewable power supplies, another aspect of getting smart, CMP spokesman John Carroll said.

Part of the company’s Maine Power Reliability Project could also involve not improving lines into Portland and the mid-coast, instead making those areas pilot projects overseen by GridSolar (CMP and GridSolar are working together; the idea awaits the Maine Public Utilities Commission's blessing). The approach, Silkman said, would be to measure, then wait and see.

“We may find that the grid is more robust than the modeling that CMP has done suggests, in which case the need for those (additional) resources could be put off by a year, two years, three years, five years,” he said.

If and when more power is needed, Silkman said, GridSolar would put out a call for all options, which could entail transmission lines or adding sources such as solar or wind.

That’s also where Lewiston comes in.

GridSolar wants the Twin Cities to be a third test site. CMP wants a new 115-kilovolt line to connect two substations, a $30 million project called the “Lewiston Loop.” A hearing with expert testimony is scheduled for Tuesday in Hallowell. The PUC won’t come out with a decision until February at the earliest.

The state agency is due to weigh in on a slew of smart grid-related issues. The rough timetable, according to a PUC spokeswoman:

— It will decide whether Maine needs a smart grid coordinator sometime after Jan. 20. That company or companies could take a big-picture view of Maine’s electric grid and its progress.

— It’s looking into “dynamic electricity pricing,” or whether the agency ought to get involved in finding price options for consumers that include incentives for dialing up or dialing down use at different times of day.

— And sometime after Dec. 13, it will take up one group’s request to stop CMP from installing any more smart meters until more research is in — so far, the most contentious and public part of the smart grid.

Home, health, autos

Two weeks ago, Davies attended a public forum in Scarborough at which that council wanted a temporary halt to new smart meters. CMP brought in experts. The meeting started at 7 p.m. with health concerns, fire risk and cyber security up for discussion. It ended at midnight with safety and spying pushed to a second forum this coming Tuesday.

Health had dominated the discussion.

“Clearly, there is underlying this thing a lot of doubt in a lot of directions,” Davies said.

In a filing with the PUC, lead complainant Elisa Boxer-Cook of Scarborough says her group wants consumers to be able to opt out of the new meters, citing, among many issues and concerns, "inundating Maine residents with non-ionizing radio-frequency radiation."

Maine’s Chief Health Officer Dora Mills has gone on record as having found “no consistent or convincing evidence” between smart meter exposure and “adverse health effects.”

Carroll said the meters transmit radio signals in microsecond spurts that add up to about 43 seconds a day. He likened exposure 20 inches away from the box as 1/7,000th the maximum signal exposure allowed by the Federal Communications Commission.

“People have cordless phones in their homes; they have baby monitors,” Carroll said. “Wireless technology is all around us and for one reason or another, this use of it has raised this alarm.”

Davies, whose job is to look out for consumers’ interests, said his office hasn’t come out one way or the other on the meters. It supports the PUC opening an investigation and exploring line-based means of sending along data for those who absolutely oppose radio transmissions.

As for the other concerns, Carroll said a cyber security plan was part of CMP’s application that won a $96 million federal grant to pay for half of the new meter installation. (The other half of the project comes from savings over 15 years from dropping meter readers, their vehicles and insurance.)

The fire worry, he said, stems from CMP running into poor wiring as it takes down old meters. It’s working with electricians.

All of CMP’s 620,000 accounts will see smart meters by the end of the first quarter of 2012. Carroll said they’re bound for Lewiston-Auburn and Western Maine at the end of 2011.

Once in place, customers will be able to track their electricity usage by going online to see yesterday’s results. To see it in real time — and do something to curtail their use in the moment — they’ll have to purchase a reader for about $150, said Eric Bryant, senior counsel at the Public Advocate's Office.

Electric rates, without consumers minding their meters, have gone down in the recession and are seeing an uptick now, Davies said. The gap between Maine’s historically high rates and the rest of the country is narrowing, he said, but: “It doesn’t mean we’re going down.”

Silkman predicted Maine consumers might be able to opt into dynamic pricing programs within the year. His estimate on smart appliances taking hold: four to 10 years.

The use of electric cars to use and boost the grid could be more of a wild card.

“Right now, you buy a car and its only purpose is to move you from point A to point B,” Silkman said. “If you could also utilize the battery in the car to help the electric grid, and get paid for doing that, it might be that electric cars become more attractive.”

There are, by one means of counting, only four registered in the state of Maine, according to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

“Eventually, it will matter, but at the moment there’s nothing on offer for consumers,” said Mark Isaacson, Silkman’s partner in GridSolar. “When there’s something on offer, consumers will need to pay attention and they will pay attention.”

kskelton@sunjournal.com

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 's picture

Personally, I'm all for new

Personally, I'm all for new technology but if there is a chance that these smart meters pose a health risk their installation should be delayed until more studies can be done.

When it comes to health and safety it pays on err on the side of caution

No one should have be guinea pig.

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