Smart Meters are First Step to a Smarter Energy Grid

  • John Essey, 35, of Dormont, talks to his house through his smart watch as his wife, Adrienne Tolentino Essey, 32, plays with his daughter, Aurelia Essey, 1, Saturday, April 25, 2015. Essey has wired most of his home to run though his smart devices. Photo: Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media

by Liz Reid | WESA

June 12, 2015

From the outside, John and Adrienne Essey’s home looks pretty much like the others on the street. The house, just south of Pittsburgh, is about a hundred years old, has two stories and a well-kept lawn. But inside, it’s a different story.

“Ok, Google, open unlock back door,” John Essey says as he approaches his back door. The door unlocks, automatically, without a key.

Essey, a senior systems engineer at Carnegie Mellon University, is slowly cobbling together a so-called “smart home.” Various sensors and computers let him know the status of just about anything in the house. He knows when his basement floor is wet, when his baby is waking up and even when it’s time to fold the laundry.

“The dryer has finished its cycle,” says a computerized, female voice. “So, yeah my dryer’s done,” Essey says.

At this point, creating this kind of functionality requires a lot of work. The voice activated-door locks, for example, took about an hour of tinkering. And it took the system about 12 seconds for Google to actually open the door after Essey issued the voice command. Essey calls this “friction,” and says most people aren’t going to bother installing technology like this until it’s much easier.

But the smart home is coming. For a lot of people, their first smart device will be the smart electric meter on the side of their home. The new meters will report consumption data to utility companies about once an hour, giving homeowners deeper insight into their electricity usage. And in the long run, they’re key to helping utilities build a smarter grid.

Sean Case, a worker for Wellington Energy Inc., installs a smart meter for Duquesne Light customers in Coraopolis, Wednesday, May 13, 2015. Photo: Andrew Russell (Trib Total Media)

Sean Case, a worker for Wellington Energy Inc., installs a smart meter for Duquesne Light customers in Coraopolis, Wednesday, May 13, 2015. Photo: Andrew Russell (Trib Total Media)

Greg Reed, Director of the Center for Energy at the University of Pittsburgh, says these technologies can help consumers better manage their electricity usage. For example, most people use most of their electricity during the day, not at night. In a smart home, you could schedule your dishwasher to run at 3 a.m., instead of in the evening, when all your neighbors are also running their dishwashers.

“If we can flatten that load profile, or at least reduce the peaks, which is what we designed our power networks for, we can really begin to reduce the price of generation overall and maybe even delay the building of new power plants over time,” Reed says.

This is a big reason why First Energy, one of the region’s big electric utilities, is installing 2 million smart meters in Pennsylvania. Spokesperson Diane Francis says the cost is high—over $1 billion. But there are benefits.

“If there are power outages, we’ll have a better sense of when and where these outages occurred and be able to respond to them a lot more effectively,” Francis says.

But not everyone is a fan of the new meters.

Lisa Nancollas of the citizen group Stop Smart Meters in PA says smart meters have caught fire near Philadelphia. And she says there are concerns that the radio waves used to transmit the information to utilities could cause cancer.

Regulators say those concerns are exaggerated and that the radio waves coming out of a smart meter are even weaker than the waves coming out of old 900-MHz cordless phones. On the privacy front, utilities say they’re doing everything they can to protect consumers’ information and that the data stream coming from smart meters includes no identifying information.

But Lee Tien, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization focused on civil liberties in the digital world, says the biggest threat may not be from criminals intercepting your data and knowing your daily routine.

“Law enforcement, government access to this information is really one of the most sensitive issues,” Tien says. “The supreme court has long said that in the home, all details are intimate.”

Tien says government access to the data generated by smart meters will be an important question moving forward, but that we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water.

But Stop Smart Meters in PA sees it differently. They’re working to get Pennsylvania’s smart meter mandate repealed altogether.

David Conti of Trib Total Media contributed to this report.