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FPL plans to install more 'smart meters' to help customers save money

In the past year, Kevin Linn has cut more than $100 from his monthly electric bill simply by raising his thermostat to 79 or 80 degrees when he's not home, turning off his pool pump six hours a day and running his water heater for only a few hours in the morning and evening instead of all day.

The Coral Springs resident credits a new "smart meter" installed last year in his home by Florida Power & Light with prompting him to make the changes. The smart meter allows him to track — and trim — his electricity use.

Linn is one of 550,000 FPL customers in South Florida — including 325,000 in Broward County and 225,000 in Miami Dade — with smart meters.

They are about to get a lot more company. FPL, the state's largest utility, plans to replace almost all of its 4.5 million customers' meters by 2014 and make other improvements to make the region's power grid more reliable. FPL will start installing smart meters in Palm Beach County as early as this year and will have 670,000 there by 2012.

"Basically, it allows you to have a finger on what you're using, what it's costing," said Linn, an environmental-products salesman.

He estimated the meter helped him lower his utility bill to about $200 and saved him at least $1,000 since its installation.

"If you leave your lights on one day and not the other, being able to see it in graph form just kind of awakens you to the cause and effect," Linn said.

FPL officials say Linn's experience exemplifies what customers can do to conserve energy if they use the information smart meters provide.

Smart meters track customers' electricity use in detail so they can log into their FPL accounts online and see how much energy they're using by the month, week or hour. Customers without computer access can receive the same information from FPL by phone.

Soon, the meters also will signal to the utility when power is out at a home or business so FPL can try to restore power before the customer reports it.

FPL's smart-meter initiative is part of a nationwide push to give consumers and utilities more information about the grid and what they can do to manage their energy use.

"You really have a lot more insight and information so you can make more informed energy choices," said Bryan Olnick, an FPL vice president of smart grid operations. "In the future, you can make changes and you can see the immediate impact."

FPL and other advocates say the technology offers tremendous promise but acknowlege it is still largely untested on a broad scale.

FPL spokesman Mark Bubriski said national data indicates average consumers might be able to save up to 15 percent. Much will depend on how much consumers actually use the new tools.

There are also questions about whether the benefits to customers will outweigh the cost. One-fourth of the $800 million cost of the new meters is to be covered by a federal grant; but the rest will come from customers' base rates, which include profit for the company.

FPL officials say the investment will create jobs. And the improvements eventually will save costs to customers for hundreds of meter readers and maintaining or replacing outdated equipment.

FPL also is adding new technology to its power power grid that detects problems and can help avoid outages. The technology will store the data to help FPL managers learn from problems.

Smart meters might help address complaints from FPL customers who question the accuracy of their electricity bills. Of the 155 complaints the Public Service Commission has received from FPL customers this year, 88 have been about billing issues, and the rest have been about service, according to commission documents.

"I have an aunt who will say, 'How can it be — this bill?' " said Irene White, FPL's senior director of customer operations support. The new meters will help resolve that kind of a question by allowing customers to see exactly how much energy they used at a given time, White said.

Linn said his old meter had triggered similar questions.

"When you're getting your bill, you don't know what you're getting billed for," Linn said. "With smart meters, it kind of paints a picture of what constitues that $300. You can see it by the hour and you can kind of put the pieces together."

Olnick said FPL will wait before asking regulators to allow it to offer customers rates that change during different times of the day, based on electricity demand — a common utility practice nationwide. Although such rate policies can save some consumers money, others who can't turn off major appliances during the "peak" hours might see much higher rates. FPL will ask regulators to test the varied rates on 260 homes with smart meters.

A change in Pacific Gas & Electric's rate structure — for customers who wanted the change — led to soaring rates for some. California regulators then began an investigation into the accuracy of the utility's smart meters.

The company recently reported finding problems in about 21,000 of its 2.5 million electric smart meters, according to company spokesman Paul Moreno. But some of those problems stemmed from incorrect installation or issues not related to the meters' technology, he said, and it's allowing the utility to avoid estimating what a customer's bill should be when meters can't be physically accessed because of locked fences, dogs or bad weather.

Like Pacific Gas & Electric, FPL is using meters made by General Electric and powered by technology from Silver Spring Networks. FPL received a $200 million grant as part of a $3.4 billion portion of the federal stimulus package to support advanced grid projects.

Public Counsel J.R. Kelly — the state's advocate for utility customers — said he will keep tabs on smart grid technology as it's implemented in Florida.

"We're waiting to see the proof in the pudding," he said. "You hear about the smart grid, and there are some great ideas, but what we are looking for is: Are the benefits going to outweight the costs?"

Kelly said FPL representatives presented information to him last week about the technology and mentioned they were focusing on raising awareness about it among customers.

"That is extremely important," Kelly said. "It may be the greatest technology, but if we don't … show them how to use it and give them reasons for using it, I don't see how we're ever going to achieve benefits from the smart grid."

The smart meters won't stop some customers from questioning the accuracy of their bills. Arthur Smith, of Tamarac, and Barbara McCoy, in Pompano Beach, have questioned the usage figures from their newly installed smart meters provided to them by FPL. They questioned figures from when they went out of town last year and turned off major appliances.

The records indicated McCoy's usage dropped less than she expected the days she was gone and Smith's actually increased during the 29 days he was gone.

Bubriski said McCoy ultimately indicated she was satisfied after FPL analyzed her usage and confirmed it had dropped.

"At Smith's request, FPL retested his meter and found it to be registering accurately, but replaced it with a new smart meter to assuage his concerns," Bubriski said.

Bubriski said every new smart meter that is installed has been tested multiple times for accuracy and it can vary by only half a percentage point or less — an accuracy level four times better than required by the state.

"If a customer is concerned about the accuracy of a meter reading, they should contact FPL right away," he said. "We will take immediate steps to understand their concerns and will verify their usage and, if necessary, have the meter tested."

Julie Patel can be reached at 954-356-4667 and jpatel@SunSentinel.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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