June 13, 2013

PUC’s staff: CMP meters not living up to promises

The smart devices are not saving money or cutting energy use, the sta• says as the agency considers an audit. But the company insists the analysis is all wrong.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The staff of Maine’s Public Utilities Commission contends that Central Maine Power Co. has mismanaged its smart-meter program, costing customers millions of dollars rather than saving them money and failing to provide the expected energy savings and operational benefits.   

CMP disagrees, saying the meters were installed on budget and have already begun saving money, with greater benefits coming in the years ahead.   

The PUC will decide Thursday whether to audit the program – a step that would broaden the debate over smart meters beyond their alleged health effects into questions about whether the devices have lived up to their promised potential.   

The commission’s deliberations could provide an early glimpse into how Mainers are taking to a nascent, fast-changing technology. So far, very few customers appear interested in the limited data offered by CMP’s smart meters, or in using electricity when rates are cheaper.   

That’s not unusual, said Patty Durand, executive director of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Atlanta.   

“It’s a slow process,” she said. “Our research shows consumers want to know more, but it takes time for utilities to figure out what programs to create and how to market them.”   

Digital meters are one link in what energy experts call a smart grid, an evolving system in which computers and automation help maintain and upgrade the reliability of the nation’s electrical network. The meters are fast replacing analog meters in the United States. More than 35 million had been installed by the first half of last year, and 65 million will be in place by 2016, according to the Edison Foundation.   

CMP and state regulators began talking about smart meters six years ago, but the PUC didn’t approve the program until 2009, when a $96 million federal stimulus grant that paid half the cost became available. Today, 600,000 meters are operating in an 11,000-square-mile wireless network. The network lets CMP calculate bills without sending workers to read meters, for instance, and it lets customers know how much electricity they’re using at various times.   

When the meters were first installed, CMP estimated that the net savings to ratepayers would total $25 million over the 20-year life of the equipment. But the PUC staff says that won’t happen. Rather than saving money, the program will actually cost customers about $80 million over the period, the staff says, and CMP shouldn’t be able to recover that cost in rates.   

CMP strongly disagrees. In a rebuttal filed last week with the PUC, it notes that a total of 13 audits of the program will be done by year’s end, internally and by the federal government, and no audit has revealed big issues with cost, management or the capabilities of the system.   

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