Real-time power tracking could change consumer habits
Thousands of area residents with electric meters that transmit usage data wirelessly soon will be able to examine their power habits online.
CenterPoint Energy, along with other distribution utilities and IBM, is expected to launch an online portal, www.smartmetertexas.com, this month that will allow customers to monitor usage in real time regardless of which retailer provides their electricity.
Without the portal, customers who have the new devices called smart meters have had to seek their usage data through their electricity retailers or by buying a monitoring system. CenterPoint has installed about 180,000 smart meters so far as part of a four-year program to install them throughout its service area in Southeast Texas. Because meters take about two months to go fully online, only 130,000 customers will have immediate access to their electricity data on the Web site, CenterPoint spokeswoman Leticia Lowe said. CenterPoint originally planned to install meters at all its customers’ businesses and residences by 2014, but a $200 million federal grant will help it finish the job by 2012, the company says. Consumers are also covering a chunk of the costs through a fee of about $3 on their monthly bills. Retailer electricity providers started collecting the fee for CenterPoint last year and will for 11 more years. Could level out demand The meters can relay the amount of electricity used every fifteen minutes, a feature until now limited to large commercial customers. If the meters work as intended, they will level out demand as customers identify excessive power consumption and high-use times, and adjust their habits to take advantage of rate plans that charge less for off-peak electricity. This could lower costs for electric companies as the grid’s need for power plants declines. The system also reads meters remotely, and should be able to pinpoint power outages sooner, leading to faster restoration of service. “For consumers, despite the cost, it will be a net positive,” assuming utilities also pass their savings on to consumers, said Sam Lucero, an analyst with ABI Research. Smart meters also could allow customers to switch providers more quickly. Local tech enthusiast Rakesh Agrawal heard about the meters after he had already installed a Ted 5000 home energy-monitoring system in October. The system connects to circuit breakers and sends usage data to a small display on his kitchen counter as well as to Google’s Web portal, PowerMeter. “The first thing we realized was how much electricity we were wasting on lights,” he said, adding he quickly switched the incandescent bulbs in his home to compact fluorescents. The monitoring system cost about $240, but Agrawal estimates he’s lowered his monthly bill 30 percent to 40 percent by changing the bulbs and his habits. Once CenterPoint’s portal is up, he’s looking forward to seeing how it compares to Google’s. Meanwhile, retailer Reliant Energy is offering a rate plan that charges less for kilowatts burned during low-demand times. Under Reliant’s time-of-use plan, consumers in Houston pay a winter rate for November through March of 12.1 cents per kwh during low demand times and 15.5 cents during other times. The summer rate during peak hours, 4 p.m, to 6 p.m. on weekdays, jumps to 17.5 cents. Many retailers are still waiting for some critical mass of smart meters before rolling out more rates and services. TXU Energy offers a power monitor in Houston but has no time-of-use rate plan here yet. Direct Energy plans a pilot program later this year in Houston with a power monitor that also lets customers check e-mail, traffic and weather, and download movies and other media. Remote control of lights As consumers grow accustomed to monitors and more appliances are sold with the embedded wireless technology, retailers envision networked homes where consumers can control lights and appliances from the Web or through applications on their smart phones. “The meters are just a small link in the chain,” said Tom Gros, a senior vice president of sales at Reliant. Last year, Reliant was awarded a $20 million federal grant to develop smart energy products and services. The company has a house in Montrose furnished with smart appliances, energy monitors and other devices it’s testing. It plans to launch its own Web portal soon and already sends weekly usage e-mail updates. Still, not everyone is convinced the meters are good for those who don’t have or can’t afford Internet service. “All of this information comes at a cost,” said Carol Biedrzycki, executive director of Texas Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Energy. “Consumers need to investigate how much they have to invest in order to function economically under a time-of-use rate plan.”
-By Purva Patel, Houston Chronicle