Smart Meters and Power Outages: Myths and Realities

Smart Meters and Power Outages: Myths and Realities

By Mary at Maryland Smart Meter Awareness

During Hurricane Sandy, we heard utility spokespeople claim that smart meters would help in the event of a storm by enabling the utility to see immediately the location of all outages rather than having to wait for thousands of phone calls. This claim is misleading because the problems in restoration of service are not due to the utilities’ lack of knowledge about where the outages are, but rather to the number of outages and how prepared the utilities are to deal with them. The reason for long waits for restoration of service has to do with how many outages occur and how prepared the utility is to deal with them. In addition, the utilities do not restore power on a “first come, first served” basis. Utilities triage restoration so that their efforts bring the most people back on line in the shortest possible time. Thus regardless of how BGE becomes aware that you lost your power, you will still have to wait until you have a high enough priority before BGE restores your power. Having a smart meter is this situation will make little, if any difference in the time it takes to get your power restored.
One way to prevent widespread outages and to make restoration more effective would be to upgrade the infrastructure of the entire electric grid, an endeavor that is long overdue. This might include, for example, more underground wires and keeping those above ground in better repair. Quite obviously, a robust system that prevents outages to begin with would be far better than an alarm system that notifies the utilities of failures once they occur. As for the unavoidable outages that may still occur, utilities might take the following measures:

  • Have parts available rather than waiting until a storm to start looking for these
  • Have extra crews in place before a storm
  • Maintain and upgrade infrastructure on a regular basis

Clearly, restoration of service does NOT depend on having a smart meter on one’s house. The utilities’ ability to look at a computer to identify all the outages is not the key factor that will speed restoration. In other words, the absence of smart meters has not prohibited timely restoration of service. In fact, the opposite might be true, for two reasons:

  1.  Allocating funds for smart meters makes it less likely that sufficient money will be available for addressing infrastructure related problems that cause outages in the first place.
  2.  A wireless smart grid poses serious hacking and cyber security risks that render our power system far more vulnerable to maliciously being taken down which is not the case with the current system. This concern has been voiced repeatedly by top security experts. Thus, in deploying a wireless smart grid, we are actually opening up the likely possibility that our power system can and will be hacked into, and that more devastating outages will occur once the smart grid is in place. Instead of outages being only weather related, they will now be linked to hacking and cyber security issues as well, thus requiring yet more money to keep up with technology and security breeches.

The question to consider is: What possible benefits might smart meters have for consumers during a storm? And do these benefits outweigh the many problems posed by smart meters?

During storm Derecho in July, 2012, PEPCO already had a functioning smart grid; yet full restoration took 5-6 long, hot days. How is that an improvement over restoration of service prior to the deployment of smart meters?

Despite utility rhetoric about the capability of smart meters to alert them immediately about where outages are, the fact remains that it can take up to six hours for the outage data from a smart meter to reach the utility’s office. This fact has been acknowledged by the utilities and Smart Grid professionals themselves.

Therefore, a phone call is faster, better, and more efficient than smart meters for reporting outages. An automated phone system for notification could be highly efficient provided that the utility is set up to receive and process the calls.

Another, perhaps trivial, “benefit” of smart meters might be in the case of people who had evacuated their homes prior to a storm, and afterwards, wish to find out whether or not they have power before returning home. It may seem, at first blush, that a smart meter might be of help here because of the possibility of going to the utility website to find out about the power status of their home. However, in the event of large-scale outages, utility websites could easily be knocked offline. Moreover, as previously mentioned, it is important to understand that utilities, despite their rhetoric, do not offer real-time data online. Therefore, people could have to wait up to six hours after the fact to learn from a utility website whether their power was restored.

In addition, a utility might report that the customer’s power is on, even though the home may be uninhabitable because of flooding, or damage by fallen trees, etc. Thus, a phone call to a neighbor would still be advisable to ascertain the safety of returning home. And since a call to a neighbor must be made in any event, power status information can be gotten as well.

Even if smart meters did perform as claimed by the utilities, (which has never actually been demonstrated during outages where smart meters have been installed) for consumers who are aware of the dangers of wireless smart meters, the option of calling in their own outage is far preferable to dealing with all of the health, safety, fire, security, and privacy issues that surround these meters.

Therefore, being spared the trouble of making a phone call and/or saving some minimal, if any, amount of time for the utility to become aware of their outage, is a tiny, insignificant benefit compared to all the risks posed by having the meter. No truly informed person would ever make this choice.

If a smart grid is necessary at all, then a fiber-optic grid, which at least reduces health, security, and hacking issues, should be employed.

In summary, the claim that smart meters are going to help consumers during storms is deceptive. Smart meters do not expedite restoration. The money being invested in smart meters — which benefit only the utilities — should instead be invested so as to truly benefit the ratepayers, namely in infrastructure upgrades which would prevent outages from occurring in the first place.

*Recall the 2003 power outage, which was not related to a storm:

“It was a hot day (over 31 °C or 88 °F) in much of the affected region, and the heat played a role in the initial event that triggered the wider power outage. The high ambient temperature increased energy demand, as people across the region turned on fans and air conditioning. This caused the power lines to sag as higher currents heated the lines.”**

One significant benefit smart meters provide the utilities is to effect what utilities call Demand Response (DR). Smart meters do not address the real issues which are related to poor & antiquated long haul power transmission infrastructure, but smart meters do enable utilities to remotely control/regulate consumer appliances during high demand periods to reduce the load. Now some might say that this is necessary because there is only a limited amount of electricity available at any one time, but the reality is that utilities purchase electricity at higher rates during peak times. By automatically reducing our consumption during these times, utilities (1) don’t have to buy as much electricity at higher rates, and (2) can ignore the critical need to invest in better power transmission infrastructure. Essentially, if utilities can reduce consumption during this period, they can significantly increase their bottom line. This saves the utilities money, not the consumers***.

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