Smart meters make inroads in N.C., allowing remote access from smartphones and laptops

Use of laptop to direct home energy use thrills some; others yawn

jmurawski@newsobserver.com June 11, 2012 

Georgana Kicinski lives in Creedmoor but can access her thermostat from pretty much anywhere she has Internet access. Most recently she adjusted her home temperature settings from Asheville, Florida and New York.

She raves about her “awesome” experience of technological empowerment, which allows her to turn down or shut off her air conditioner and other energy-hogging appliances when she’s at work or out of town.

But very few in North Carolina have this option because electric utilities are reluctant to invest millions of dollars into a technology that most customers are not expected to use. Indeed, many who have tested these programs in this state have lost interest and didn’t want to continue.

Fewer than 130 people use these advanced smart meters in North Carolina. Sixty, including Kicinski, are members of Wake Electric Membership Corp., a rural electric cooperative based in Wake Forest that sells power in seven counties, including parts of Wake, Durham and Johnston. The other 66 users get their power from the Fayetteville Public Works Commission.

Others who enjoy the same futuristic features say they have changed thermostat settings remotely in midflight during business trips. Some prefer to adjust settings from bed using an iPad so they don’t have to walk down the hall to fiddle with the thermostat.

These homeowners use remote energy settings not so much to save effort but to save money by disabling energy-draining appliances.

“I think I’m saving at least $50 a month,” Kicinski said. “I’ve told all my neighbors here in the subdivision.”

This is how the vaunted smart grid is supposed to play out in the home in coming years, much as homeowners today can already remotely control their cable TV programs and other settings. The electric utility version allows users to program temperature settings by weekday and weekend, months into the future, and override or alter those settings if necessary from any Internet connection.

The programs also provide real-time home energy profiles, showing how much juice is sucked by major appliances that account for more than half of household power consumption.

It’s a level of control that electric customers could not dream about until the advent of digital and wireless technologies.

Tough sell

Wake Electric tested the technology with 100 customers, and since concluding the trial two years ago, only about half have stuck with the program. Some moved out of the area and others have signed up, said engineering manager Don Bowman.

The main impediment, Bowman suspects, is the $9.95 monthly fee Wake EMC charges for the wireless technology necessary for the two-way interactive smart meters to work. The monthly savings from using the system will more than pay for the fee, Bowman said, but it requires a level of engagement many customers are not willing to make.

Kicinski has logged on from a hotel to switch on her air conditioner because she cut short an out-of-town trip and wanted her home to be comfortable when she walked in the door. And she has instructed her thermostat to keep the heat off an extra day to save money while extending her vacation.

Kicinski has raved about the system to her neighbors, but none has been sold on the concept. Many think it’s just too much of a hassle to keep track of individualized settings for thermostats and appliances, she said.

Customer convenience

The technology suite is not cheap. It costs nearly $400 per customer and includes two programmable thermostats and three radio-controlled devices to remotely program separate appliances, Bowman said. Wake Electric provides the equipment free of charge.

The benefit for utilities is a reduction in peak energy demand, which can prevent having to fire up older, less efficient power plants or having to buy wholesale power at the most expensive rates.

Wake Electric, however, is offering the service on a small scale as a customer convenience, not to achieve systemwide savings.

The technology used by Wake Electric and the Fayetteville utility is made by Consert, a Texas company that moved from Raleigh last year and still has about eight employees here. Consert moved to Texas to help work closely with its biggest customer, CPS Energy, the municipal power agency for the city of San Antonio, for which Consert is installing 140,000 two-way smart meters for residential and small-business customers.

Currently about 1,000 households nationwide use the Consert system, said Jeff Ebihara, the company’s Raleigh-based vice president of sales.

Consert is also developing an iPad app so that customers don’t have to call up a website.

Bowman said the ideal user has a multifaceted profile: a frequent traveler who is environmentally conscious, tech-savvy and frugal.

However, for the bulk of its 35,500 customers, Wake Electric is installing a different type of smart meter that will give customers a basic function: hourly readings of their household energy usage. This system won’t break down household usage by appliance, and it will not have the option of adjusting program settings. But the energy readings are expected to create awareness of energy-use habits, which can lead to less waste.

The system will give the utility instant notifications about outages and other disruptions. It will cost about $80 per meter, provided at no cost to the customer.

The 66 Fayetteville customers on the advanced Consert system are carry-overs from a pilot test, but the municipal utility hopes to provide the service to all 80,000 of its electricity customers.

Fayetteville to offer incentives

Fayetteville officials expect greater interest than seen at Wake Electric because rather than charge customers for the usage, the city utility will offer an incentive to those who sign up, said Keith Lynch, the utility’s power contracts and regulatory manager.

The typical cost savings for customers in the Fayetteville test were 10 percent to 15 percent. One customer cut household energy costs by 40 percent, Lynch said, while another saw no savings because the customer did not use the system to control his thermostat and appliances.

Notwithstanding the general indifference, some are totally engrossed by monitoring their energy use.

Wayne Harvey, a Wake Electric customer in Franklinton, says his wife has become addicted to the system since it was installed earlier this year. The family runs their water heater for several hours a day, instead of 24 hours a day.

“It gives you an opportunity to save money without having to guess how your electricity is being spent,” he said.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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