September 26, 2010

CMP meters: Get smart to save money

A $192 million project to install wireless electric meters is aimed at boosting off-peak use.

By Tux Turkel
Staff Writer

Central Maine Power Co. has begun a two-year effort to remove 600,000 old-style electric meters from every home and business it serves and replace them with digital devices that, over time, can change how people use electricity and what they pay for it.

These "smart" electric meters will feature wireless communications technology that allows CMP to automatically monitor power use across its system and detect outages. Customers, through special displays and personal computers, will be able to see how much electricity they're using at any hour.

Eventually, customers may pay lower rates for turning off water heaters or air conditioners during periods of peak demand, possibly through radio signals to a new generation of smart appliances and thermostats. These so-called dynamic pricing programs are under way in other states and countries, although Maine utility regulators are just starting to study how they might be structured here.

The smart meter switchout coincides with the start of a five-year reconstruction of CMP's bulk transmission system. The $1.4 billion project will create an estimated 2,000 jobs and $60 million a year in wages. It's aimed at improving reliability, but also will extend new high-voltage lines into western Maine, where additional wind farms are proposed.

Within the next decade or so, the combination of smart meters and a smarter grid could fulfill a dream of some environmental groups. They envision Mainers charging electric vehicles at night, when demand and prices are low, with renewable power from the wind and tides.

CMP's power grid dates to the 1960s. Its analog meter technology was around when Thomas Edison was alive. Bringing the grid and meters into the 21st century has been a priority for CMP's parent company, Iberdrola S.A. The Spanish utility is the second largest wind power developer in the United States. The company's chairman, Ignacio Galan, is scheduled to be in Gorham and Portland on Tuesday, at ceremonies marking the start of both projects.

But as with all emerging technologies, smart meters are not without problems.

Consumers in California and Texas launched lawsuits over higher bills that they say were triggered by faulty gas and electric meters. Recent independent studies cleared the utilities, but the controversy has been a public relations disaster and many residents remain suspicious of the meters.

CMP says it has learned lessons from these early programs, but some consumer advocates question whether Maine customers will see the promised benefits any time soon. Others, however, equate the emerging smart grid with the Internet of 20 years ago, or smart phones of today. Until the network and the technology exist, they say, it's hard to imagine exactly how people will use them.

CMP will clearly benefit from smart meters. They will eliminate 140 meter reader jobs and the 2 million miles they drive each year. CMP will be able to see precisely where power is out following a storm, saving time and resources, as well as track electricity consumption by the hour during periods of high demand.

"It will give us a clearer picture of how our system is performing," said John Carroll, a CMP spokesman. "All this information will allow us to make adjustments in how we operate and invest in the system."

The entire project will cost $192 million. CMP had initially been unsuccessful in persuading state regulators it was worth the investment. That changed after CMP won a $96 million economic stimulus grant last year, part of the Obama administration's efforts to upgrade the national utility grid. Shareholders -- not ratepayers -- will pick up almost all of the balance.

Over the next few months, a private contractor will begin installing meters in the Portland, Augusta and Dover-Foxcroft service areas. Roughly 200 people will be hired for the job. The work in Portland and Augusta is scheduled to end by next April. Early next year, work will start in York County and the midcoast. Some customers may receive letters to let them know when the work is scheduled, but most people will get notices in their bills. Technicians will hang tags on doors to say when the job is done. As part of the federal grant, CMP will conduct a year-long study on how it publicizes the program and how people respond.

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