FAQ’s about Smart Meters and Why They are Leaving Some Concerned

Elster A3 ALPHA type A30 single-phase kWh smar...While many joke that utilities and government adapt to new technologies slower than most publicly-owned companies, one area where government and utilities seem to be advancing their technology quickly is by introducing smart meters and automated meter reading to their service territories.

The reason larger utilities have quickly adopted this technology is the perceived cost benefits, accuracy, and access to real-time information.  But smaller governments and utilities have sometimes hesitated to install these meters because of public perception.

What are smart meters?  Smart meters are electrical meters that record consumption of water, gas or energy in intervals of an hour or less and communicate that information at least daily back to the utility for monitoring and billing purposes.

What is AMR?  AMR, or automated meter reading, refers the the automated process of collecting usage data on utility meters.  Traditionally, AMR has been a one-way communication process between the meter and the central system; but when smart meters are used, two-way communications are enabled. AMR devices can collect consumption, diagnostic, usage, and status data on water, energy, or gas meters.  The information is automatically transferred a utility or government database for billing, troubleshooting, and data analysis purposes.  Before AMR, data had to be manually collected by meter readers, recorded, and uploaded for billing and usage reporting.

Why are utilities making the switch to smart meters and AMR?  Smart meters allow the utility to gather billing and utility information in real-time with less staff.  The information is instantaneous, more accurate, and cheaper to collect.  Timely reporting also allows utility personnel to quickly troubleshoot problems such as fraud, leaks, and outages by monitoring for usage spikes and lulls in real-time.

For customers, smart meters and AMR guarantee more accurate measurements of their usage, and report real-time consumption rather than estimates and predicted consumption, so bills are more accurate and customers are given a true picture of their gas, water, and energy consumption.

What are the concerns about smart meters?  Critics of smart meters are concerned that the reporting of real-time usage data is an invasion of privacy, as it may reveal information about the customer’s activities.  In addition, customers are concerned there is a greater potential for this information or monitoring to be hacked by unauthorized third parties, and that there is an increased risk of system vulnerability because information is gathered remotely over a network.

Thirdly, the replacement of meter reading personnel with technology removes the need for a career as old as meters themselves.  Though many of these meter readers are re-trained to learn other aspects of metering–install, maintenance, and troubleshooting–there are still concerns about how these jobs will ultimately recover in this economy.

Finally, there is a cost associated with upgrading traditional meters with high-tech meters (approximately $2-4 per customer, per year while being integrated). This cost, coupled with a perception that this technology is complicated and new, and therefore may have unforeseen vulnerabilities, leads some to anticipate reliability and maintenance issues in the future.

Despite some concerns about smart meters and AMR, many utilities have moved forward and installed these meters into their infrastructure.  It is estimated that as of 2012, one in every three homes has a smart meter, and that number is expected to grow to one in every two homes by 2015. Most large cities have already adopted electronic meter equipment and processes, however smaller utilities in rural locations have  been less likely to adopt smart meters thus far. To find out what extent your state has adopted electronic meters, go to Smart Meter Installations and Projected Deployment by Utility report produced by the Edison Foundations.

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