Smart meters: 2012 year in review

Tools

Smart meters and advanced metering infrastructures (AMI) took a big step forward in 2012 on the path to supplanting legacy meters as the dominant way of monitoring energy consumption in homes and businesses across the United States and abroad.

Advances in analytics and customer engagement is perhaps the biggest area where smart meters excelled this past year.

A strong growth trend

In June, ABI Research predicted that global smart meter shipments would exceed 100 million by the end of 2012 and balloon to 250 million by 2016. Taking an even longer term view, Pike Research estimates that smart meter installations will reach $1 billion by 2020.  The bulk of this growth will likely be in European and Asian markets, with North America seeing a decline in shipments and deployments.

But even so, the U.S. remains a hotbed for smart meters. Utilities had 20.3 million smart meters installed in 2010, according to the Energy Information Association (EIA). It also noted that in 2011, more than 23 percent of U.S. electric customers had smart meters. By the end of 2011, 33 million U.S. customers had the meters. EIA tallied approximately three million additional installations that occurred between January and August 2012. Maine topped the list of states installing AMI, with an 84 percent penetration rate. West Virginia came in at the other end of the spectrum, reporting no AMI installations for 2011.

These discrepancies stem both from legislative and regulatory pressures, and do not always reflect the will of individual utilities. Smart meters are expensive, and installation takes careful planning and the support of regulators and ratepayers.

Smart meters still face resistance

As smart meters become more common in U.S homes and businesses, more and more problems seem to crop up as well. The past year saw customers, utilities, and regulators all confront challenges associated with AMI, which is still a relatively new technology.

One of the biggest controversies happened this summer, when PECO announced that it received reports of 30 of its installed Sensus smart meters overheating.  It's a small percentage -- the utility had 186,000 Sensus smart meters installed at the time and only two of the incidents caused property damage -- but it was enough for PECO to dump Sensus and begin purchasing meters from Landis + Gyr.  The utility is hoping to complete the $650 million, 600,000 meter project by April 2014.

In addition to smart meters overheating, 2012 saw a continued debate over the health impact of smart meters. Since their onset, a small but vocal group of consumers have argued that radio frequency emissions from smart meters severely and negatively impact human health. The most persistent opposition has come out of California, one of the first states to permit smart meters, and a state that has faced continued pressure to accommodate uneasy customers.

______________________________
ABI Research predicts that global smart meter shipments would exceed 100 million by the end of 2012 and balloon to 250 million by 2016. Pike Research estimates that smart meter installations will reach $1 billion by 2020. ___________________________

Those concerned with smart meter health scored a big victory in July, when the Maine Public Utilities Commission launched a formal investigation into smart meter health effects. The decision came after the state Supreme Court upheld a petition alleging that regulators did not properly address the issue before giving the go ahead to Central Maine Power's $200 million smart meter deployment.

In addition to the Maine investigation, numerous state regulatory commissions and utilities rolled out opt-out programs in 2012.  The most substantial rulings came earlier in 2012, when the California Public Utilities Commission approved smart meter opt-out proposals by Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison. Both utilities charge customers who wish to stay with an analog meter a one-time and recurring fee. Similar programs exist in Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Maine, Wisconsin and Vermont (one of the few states where opting out is free).

Tapping smart meter's data potential

Advances in analytics and customer engagement is perhaps the biggest area where smart meters excelled this past year. More than ever before, utilities are able to leverage the two-way communications of AMI in order to view and manage load, as well as educate customers on the efficient use of electricity.

Smart meters have had a huge impact on demand response programs, allowing utilities to recruit customers to reduce power use at times of peak load. In return, customers are offered bill rebates or other incentives. This is especially beneficial to utilities in that it can eliminate the need to build new generation or reduce the need for back-up capacity.

Utilities have also started offering customers online dashboards where they can view daily energy use, limiting surprises when monthly bills arrive.  In addition, the spread of smart meters has encouraged many developers to create energy-efficiency "apps" that allow customers to engage with their utility and their energy use on a regular basis, both to save money and reduce environmental impact. This includes the increasingly popular Green Button data initiative, championed by the energy industry in an effort to provide customers with easy access to their energy data. 

There is no doubt 2012 was an exciting year for smart meter developments. And even while the pace may slow in 2013, the energy industry is just beginning to scratch the surface of what's possible with AMI. As this integral part of the modern grid continues to evolve, 2013's smart meters highlights look to be equally as exciting.