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Austin Energy gears up for smarter smart meters

Tuesday, September 20, 2016 by Jack Craver

Nearly a decade after rolling out smart meters for all of its electric customers, Austin Energy is planning another citywide meter upgrade.

At a Monday meeting of the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee, AE General Manager Jackie Sargent told City Council members that the utility would ask Council next month to approve a $29.1 million contract with Texas Electric Cooperatives to put in place “full function two-way meters” on every home in the city.

About 150,000 homes already have such meters in place, but the utility is aiming to get another 245,000 homes equipped over the next seven years.

“We have smart meters, but they’re fixin’ to get smarter,” explained AE spokesman Robert Cullick.

The current smart meters that most Austin homes are equipped with are relatively simple. They tell the utility and the customer how much electricity is consumed, thus eliminating the need for employees to conduct on-site meter readings.

The promise of new smart meters, however, is even more communication between a household and the utility.

“Right now, they just sit there, and every once in awhile, when they’re programmed to do it, they send out information” on energy consumption, said Cullick. “That’s just not adequate for what people expect today.”

More sophisticated meters can alert the utility to far more, including impending power outages.

“This tells us right away: Electricity is going out at this house,” said Cullick, referring to the new meters. If the utility is alerted to power outages at a handful of homes, he said, it would be able to quickly figure out that the issue is a transformer outage, for instance. If a much bigger group of residential meters in an area were reporting an outage, it would likely indicate a line fuse outage.

The utility will also be able to operate switches on the new meters remotely. That means that the utility will no longer have to send an employee or contractor to a home to turn on or shut down service.

That change alone, Sargent said, will accrue an estimated $30.2 million in savings over the next 10 years, more than paying for the cost of implementing the new technology. It will also shrink the utility’s carbon footprint and reduce the chances of injury to both AE employees and the public, she said.

The city unfortunately does not have many options when it comes to meter providers, Sargent explained. Texas Electrics Cooperative is the only distributor of the smart meters the utility is seeking.

“We don’t have the ability to mix and match,” she said.

Council members did not voice any concerns about the proposed cost of the contract or about the decision by the utility to pursue the technology.

As smart meters have become commonplace throughout the country, some people have claimed to experience negative health effects from the low-energy radiation the meters give off, which, according to the American Cancer Society, is comparable to the level of radiation given off by a cellphone or Wi-Fi router. Former District 4 City Council candidate Laura Pressley, who has also been a zealous opponent of fluoride in water, said that smart meters made her leg twitch.

In light of these concerns, ratepayers in Austin have the right to opt for a traditional analog meter instead of a smart meter. However, the utility charges $75 to install analog meters as well as a $10 monthly fee.

Photo by Mark Florence made available through a Creative Commons license.

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