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Utility: Smart meters catch deadbeats to save money

Illinois utility ComEd has found that smart meters reduce operating costs by automatically reading meters and eliminating energy theft, which are separate from potential energy efficiency savings from customers.

Illinois utilty ComEd today released a study that found smart meters yielded larger-than-expected financial benefits on operating efficiency alone.

The report, prepared by energy engineering and consulting company Black & Veatch, said smart meters eliminated the need for manual meter reading. The two-way communications of smart meters also cut down on energy theft and unpaid bills, costs which are now passed on to customers.

Projecting from the utility pilot's program, the report estimates that a full-scale smart-meter program would save between $2.8 billion and $3 billion over the 20-year life of the meters.

The meters can alert the utility of a case of so-called bad debt, or unpaid bills, and pinpoint cases of what the utility calls "unaccounted for energy," or energy that's used when consumers move into a new dwelling but don't immediately sign up with a new customer account.

The results are significant because the savings justify the investment without consumers having to adjust their behavior to reduce their electricity consumption, said Fidel Marquez, ComEd's senior vice president of customer operations. Trying to justify the cost of smart meters on fewer calls to the call center or just meter billing would not be possible, he added.

"Bad debt and unaccounted for energy--we don't make or lose money on those, but the customer ends up paying for it," he said. "It's pretty clear this is something that does benefit customers directly without them having to take action."

ComEd started installing 131,000 smart meters and the technology to gather and process data from them last fall and began a one-year trial program last May. The pilot also included the introduction of time-of-use rates, or electricity prices which change depending on whether it's a peak demand period.

In initial results being gathered by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), some consumers lowered their power during peak-power periods last summer in exchange for a rebate. Five percent to 7 percent of people, when notified of a peak-demand period by phone or text, reduced power consumption by about 35 percent.

The Black & Veatch report added that smart meters allow for other services, monitoring distribution lines for better reliability, and rates specific for plug-in electric vehicles.

ComEd released the report today amid debate in Illinois over a proposed electrical-grid infrastructure investment plan, which has cleared the state General Assembly but the governor has threatened to veto, according to a Wall Street Journal article today.

In a release, ComEd said that smart-grid technology--though not smart meters specifically--would help restore service quicker in black outs. The Chicago area has been hit by several extreme storms this summer causing outages at 800,000 customers. ComEd estimates that between 100,000 and 175,000 customers would have avoided interruptions with digital controls to reroute power.