Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Will "Smart" Meters Pass The Test of Time?

"Smart" meters are being sold as the best thing since sliced bread, though we remain skeptical. See Not so Smart? High Tech Metering May Harm Low Income Electricity Customers, PULP Network, April 16, 2007. See also
Until recently, I assumed the new hi-tech "smart" meters and associated software systems worked, and mainly questioned wisdom of a policy to destabilize prices and the cost of ubiquitous deployment.

When Niagara Mohawk/dba/ National Grid's Schlumberger/Itron semi-hi tech AMR meter (which is "pinged" remotely for readings by drive-by meter readers) failed at my house after last year's Albany area ice storm that left us powerless for four days, and when the failure was corrected and the meter replaced only after I protested a $900 bill (the meter apparently failed or rebooted to 99999 incorrectly indicating the use of 7500 kwh), I still assumed the failure was an anomaly.

But the recent fuss in California has raised a number of doubts about the new computer-based meters. See KMPH Fox News 26, State to Investigate Smart Meter Customer Complaints, Nov. 24, 2009. According to the New York Times:
A lawsuit in California claims that the metering system for Pacific Gas and Electric overcharges customers. California State Senator Dean Florez has called for a halt to the smart meter deployment, and the California Utilities Commission is investigating. The utility said the higher bills resulted from a rate increase and a hot summer.
Roy Furchgott, To Build a Smart Grid, Start With Smart Meters, New York Times, Nov. 18, 2009.

The New York PSC establishes standards for testing of meters, and requires testing upon customer complaint as well as in-service testing to assess accuracy of the larger meter population. Over time, the old style analog meters with the little wheels and dials were pretty reliable and lasted decades, and the PSC reduced the routine testing requirements to a minuscule portion of the number of meters in use. Perhaps the old style meters are better able to withstand temperature changes, the surges and flickering power and momentary outages than the new digital equipment. And perhaps more attention needs to be paid to in-service testing of the newer computer-based meters.

If you think about it, the new "smart" meters that communicate customer usage data to the utility's central computer billing system are analogous to using a computer, a digital clock, and a cellphone or modem -- outdoors, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The customer usage data must then be meshed through software with constantly changing price formulas (for "real time pricing") to calculate charges, and then attributed to particular accounts in complex utility billing systems.

How often do computers, circuit boards, chips, clocks, cellphones, and software fail?

Traditionally, the cost of old-style meters was amortized slowly over decades, with the cost recovered by utilities through depreciation allowances calibrated to the lifetime of the equipment. Some utilities are now urging faster depreciation (a cost of service allowed by regulators when setting rates) for the new "smart" equipment assuming a useful life that is much shorter, perhaps eight to ten years, more in line with the shorter lifetimes of computers and communications equipment. Others are urging more immediate recovery of their "smart meter" costs through surcharges to pay for the meters over shorter periods. The utilities' advocacy of shorter depreciation or cost recovery periods suggests a lack of faith on their part in reliability of the new systems.

According to a company that analyzes the average time between breakdowns of computer equipment, there are already some indications of a much higher rate of failure for the new "advanced metering infrastructure" (AMI) "smart" meters now being hyped:
Failure Rate (MTBF) in months
Electric Meters by Type
Legacy Meters……………2400 months
“Good” AMI ……………… 1200 months
“Bad” AMI……………………800 months

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Our experience of computing and communications equipment makes us very concerned that utilities have expectations for reliability that are unfounded. Limited data on AMI meters confirms our concerns. Consider the chart of the first page – legacy meters need repair rarely – so rarely that managers do not even monitor their reliability. Yet new devices based on digital technology with electronic circuit boards, wireless links and many similarities to consumer electronics are widely assumed to be equally durable. We are already monitoring many similar devices and have data showing very poor levels of reliability relative to meters. There is no compelling evidence to believe that the weatherproof versions of computers and communications equipment are going to be more reliable than their interior counterparts.
See TekTrakker Reports, September 10, 2009. It may be that the new meters pass lab bench tests for accuracy, and thus satisfy engineering standards, but other variables could cause them to fail, such as outages, voltage drops, power surges, heat, cold, humidity or other conditions that may not occur in the testing labs. Also, the software and process for linking the transmitted data to individual customer accounts might be faulty.

As "smart" meter pilot projects get underway, it is important for utilities and their regulators to insist upon getting, sharing, and analyzing data about "smart" meter system failures so that research based evidence is obtained on the reliability and life-cycle cost of the "smart" hardware and software products. This is necessary to assess the costs and benefits of the new systems before billions of ratepayer or taxpayer dollars are spent, to permit meaningful comparisons, to establish customer confidence in metering and billing accuracy, and to protect customers.

See the Comments and Reply Comments of NASUCA to U.S. Department of Energy requests for information regarding "Smart Grid" initiatives. In their Reply Comments, NASUCA stated:
"First, the consumers are the ultimate owners of their energy consumption data. The establishment of privacy protections for personal energy information is critical, and the issue must be resolved in favor of the highest degree of consumer protection.

Second, consumers should have the choice to participate in any advanced metering program or in any dynamic pricing schedule that may involve data sharing arrangements.

Third, there are unique differences among electric consumers that must be considered for any Smart Grid deployment.

Fourth, investments made in Smart Grid technologies must be supported by a detailed cost-benefit analysis and subject to evidentiary proceedings and prudence review before costs are passed on to utility consumers."

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