From quicker outage reporting to better use of renewable energy, advanced meters are revolutionizing the electric utility grid.
A gizmo hiding in plain sight just outside your home is innovating your electric service with quicker responses to power outages and more effective use of renewable energy sources.
It’s your electric meter. And if it hasn’t been switched from an analog model with a small metal wheel spinning behind its glass case to one with a digital readout, it likely soon will be.
Digital smart meters make up more than half the electric meters in the country, and electric cooperatives are leading the way. Fifty-eight percent of all U.S. utility customers use smart meters. For electric co-op members, that figure is 73% and climbing.
Two features make smart meters different. One is the ability to monitor energy use with the kind of detail that can give both the co-op and its members information to make more efficient use of electricity. The other is the ability to instantly send information back to the co-op either through low-power radio signals, or through power lines.
Those two capabilities create entirely new ways to improve your electric service:
- Outages can be detected and repaired faster. Smart meters can let the co-op know of an interruption, pinpointing the location, without waiting for someone to report it.
- Electricity can be used more efficiently. Smart meters can report unusual energy use, showing appliances that might be faulty or could be replaced with a more efficient version.
- Alternative energy can be better integrated into the electric grid. Smart meters can help cure one of the headaches of renewable energy—solar energy disappears at night and wind power stops in calm weather. Data from smart meters can be instantly analyzed by computers and coordinated with power plants, rooftop solar panels, and wind turbines.
- Co-op members can be involved in a more decentralized electricity system. Rooftop solar panels and electric vehicles make complicated additions to a utility network. But those can be turned into benefits by analyzing the data provided by smart meters. For example, as electric vehicles become more popular, electric co-ops are exploring special rates to encourage charging at times when energy use is lower.
- Co-op operations can be streamlined. Faulty equipment can be detected before it fails
Concerns about smart meters, including health effects of their radio signals, have been addressed by the American Cancer Society (ACS).
“The ACS suggests that because the amount of radiofrequency exposure from smart meters is much less than those from everyday devices, it is very unlikely that they could pose greater health risks,” says Tolu Omotoso, the director of energy solutions for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
Omotoso cites studies that show the strength of smart meter transmissions is far below those from a cell phone. They’re even less than your TV’s remote control. Smart meter signals also weaken with distances of even one foot, as well as when passing through the walls that separate most of us from our electric meter. Omotoso says smart meters aren’t even on all the time, “they transmit data back to the co-op only a couple times in a day, and each transmission takes milliseconds.”
Other concerns include privacy. However, electric co-ops have a long tradition of protecting the data of their members, says Omotoso.
“The co-op already knows your energy use because that’s how you get billed,” he says, “but there are privacy policies, which a lot of utilities and co-ops adhere to, to make sure that the data collected from these devices is used for its intended purpose.” Omotoso says electric co-ops adopted digital meters to avoid traveling long distances through rural areas just to read an electric meter. They’ve kept up that progress, adding other devices to create a new concept of the electric utility grid from a one-way delivery of electricity to an interactive network of power and data between the co-op and its members.
“In the utility industry of the future, you’re looking at decentralized energy use and generation, digitization, and decarbonization of the grid,” says Omotoso. “Smart meters will help utilities and energy consumers transition into this new future.”
Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives. From growing suburbs to remote farming communities, electric co-ops serve as engines of economic development for 42 million Americans across 56% of the nation’s landscape.