March 4, 2010

New CMP meters to help customers save on power

TUX TURKEL

— By

click image to enlarge

Smart meter, photo courtesy of Central Maine Power

Staff Writer

It's a hot summer afternoon, air conditioners across Maine are humming and you have a pile of laundry waiting. Is it a smart time to run the washer and dryer?

Only if you're willing to pay top rates for the electricity.

By early 2012, you'll know it's going to be an expensive load. Your electricity meter will tell you.

The information will come from ''smart'' meters that Central Maine Power Co. will start installing next year. CMP learned Tuesday that it will receive a $96 million federal grant to replace old-style meters for its 600,000 customers with smart meters. The replacements will reach three-quarters of all Maine homes and businesses.

The money, from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, is tied to a $3.4 billion investment to help the nation upgrade its aging, inefficient power grid system.

President Obama publicized the effort Tuesday at a massive solar power plant in Florida. CMP's smart-meter switchout is among 100 projects chosen for the stimulus package.

CMP will match the grant with $104 million to cover the balance of the cost. Customers won't pay for the meters in their rates, the company said.

CMP expects to save money by eliminating 85 meter-reader positions and the 2 million miles they drive each year. Jobs will be created, as well, with 200 people hired to install the meters over 18 months or so.

Smart grids, and the smart meters connected to them, are seen as a way to ease pressure on transmission and generation systems and help customers make better energy choices.

For instance, it takes more power plants -- and more expensive forms of generation -- to meet demand during the hottest hours of the year in Maine. If rates are set high during those periods, customers may choose to wait until off-peak hours to do something like the laundry.

In other states, customers tap into real-time price information on their personal computers, or with special screens in their homes.

Smart grid technology is farther along in Europe. In the United States, some utilities have angered customers by installing meters that don't seem so smart -- they're confusing, or may even cost more money than they save.

CMP and state utility regulators will face a challenge in the coming months to design a program, and set rates, that Mainers understand and appreciate. The task is complicated by Maine's 10-year-old, restructured electricity market, in which CMP distributes electricity but doesn't own generators or sell the power.

For CMP, winning the $96 million grant was a big deal. The competition drew 400 applications. The utility praised the offices of U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins for help with applying for the grant.

''This is a transformational technology for consumers, the environment and the utility industry,'' said Sara Burns, CMP's president.

Mainers pay electricity rates that are 37 percent above the national average. Advanced meters can help them manage use and hold down costs, Burns said.

Smart meters also could reduce the need to build transmission lines, said Tony Buxton, a lawyer who represents large industrial customers.

Specifically, he said, the meters could change the assumptions behind CMP's controversial plan for a $1.5 billion grid upgrade, known as the Maine Power Reliability Program. That case is before the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

''The whole point of smart meters is to reduce demand'' at peak times, Buxton said. ''It reduces investment needed in transmission lines and power plants.''

In response, CMP said Tuesday that it studied alternatives to its transmission line upgrade -- including conservation -- and concluded that the project still needs to be built as proposed.

The company also is aware that smart-meter concepts don't always work in practice.

In Fresno, Calif., for instance, many customers of Pacific Gas & Electric are mad at their smart meters. They paid for the technology through their rates, and now complain that their bills went up. The utility blames the spike on a hot summer and a rate increase, not the meters.

CMP will have to make extra efforts to communicate with customers before the rollout, Burns said.

That will be critical, said Sam Spencer, editor of Smart Grid Today, a trade newsletter that covers the evolving technology.

An ongoing fight over uniform operating standards for smart meters has kept much of the industry from embracing the technology, Spencer said. So without broad experience, it's too soon to say how customers are responding and whether they're seeing the promised benefits.

''Educating the public is extremely important in making this work,'' he said.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

tturkel@pressherald.com

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