WHY UTILITY CLAIMS OF ENERGY SAVINGS FROM SMART METERS
ARE NOTHING MORE THAN “GREEN-WASHING”
By Alexander Binik
The huge costs for PG&E’s (and other utilities’) smart meters programs are paid for either completely by the ratepayers (in PG&E’s case) or by a combination of ratepayer charges and federal tax dollars. The utilities’ primary justification for these ultra-expensive public expenditures is their claim that the new meters will be used by customers to substantially reduce energy use and/or to shift use to night-time hours (thus decreasing the use of “peaker” electricity plants). In either case, supposedly the smart meters will help slow down global warming.
Has PG&E conducted any pilot studies to determine whether these predictions are based in reality?
NO! In 2008, when PG&E first proposed shifting over to a $2.2 billion system of mesh-networked wireless microwave-pulsed meters, the San Francisco Department of the Environment and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission jointly issued a report charging that savings from the digital-metering system simply would not cover its increased costs to the public. The San Francisco report for the Board of Supervisors quoted negative tests from across the United States and Canada, while warning that a large-scale system attempting all the advanced features pledged by PG&E has never been tested anywhere. The SF critique strongly recommended that PG&E be required to conduct a 500,000-unit pilot program before rolling out Smart Meters to all its customers. The CPUC was urged to reject any additional smart-meter costs “until the proposed upgrades can be proven to be cost effective and deliver on the promised benefits.”
However, no such pilot project of PG&E’s new system ever was carried out. The California PUC Division of Ratepayer Advocates and The Utility Reform Network watchdog group further chimed in with objections that PG&E’s energy conservation claims were overstated. Nevertheless, PG&E has NOT conducted a single pilot study to test its assumptions. And the CPUC, shirking its duty as a regulatory agency, has not required any such studies before approving PG&E’s request to force each customer to accept the new meters and pay for them (billions of dollars already, and the cost is still mounting).
Is there evidence from other regions to support PG&E’s predictions of increased customer energy conservation?
NO again! Because smart meters are a new phenomenon worldwide, there has been little opportunity to date to evaluate such predictions with actual usage statistics. But a recent research report (from Lower Carbon Futures, the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University) informs us that “little evidence exists to show overall demand reduction”.
A recent extensive report, jointly issued by national nonprofit organizations including Public Citizen and AARP, looked through hundreds of utility dockets and found that there is no significant evidence of sustained overall energy conservation due to use of AMI (the technical name for smart meter programs).
In fact, the only study to date of an actual wireless smart meter system’s energy conservation outcomes was of the system in Toronto and environs in Canada. That 1-year study of 10 thousand households showed no significant energy conservation on a per-household basis; indeed, if the system-wide energy costs for manufacturing, installing and maintaining the system were factored in, there could well have actually been an increase in overall carbon footprint.
However, in this study, the resulting increase in customers’ energy bills was indeed quite significant—80% of households have been paying higher rates than before smart meters were installed; and this is in addition to customers having paid the huge costs of installing the smart meter infrastructure. This jibes with conclusions in the report from Public Citizen et al, that.
What about the likelihood of smart meters facilitating time-shifting of electricity use away from periods of high demand?
Utilities sometimes claim that smart meters constitute an effective tool for “load management” (i.e., customer usage time-shifting to generate peak load reduction), aimed to reducing CO2 emissions by reducing the building and use of “peaker” plants. About this, the Public Citizen report says: “ Residential customers can deliver the same or similar level of peak load reduction if promised a rebate or credit compared to the customers who were on critical peak prices. Furthermore, the objective of obtaining a significant level of peak load demand reduction can be met without an expensive new metering system.”
To the best of our knowledge, there have not been any deployed mandatory AMI systems for which substantial peak load reductionwas achieved and maintained for a significant period of time. Nor have there even been long-term pilot studies for this situation in which everyone received a smart meter and time-of-use of dynamic pricing was used. Again, there’s no evidence to date suggesting that a smart meters system will make any significant inroads in this direction.
Differential time-of-use electricity rate schedules are already available as an option for customers without the need for smart meters. With a smart meter system, a sufficiently-motivated customer could seek electricity usage data online, but could only access overall household usage statistics…and for periods 24 hours prior or earlier. One would have to keep very-careful personal records to track what was in use at that time and compare it with usage at other earlier times when perhaps the TV or dishwasher hadn’t been in use. Typically, the maximum savings from time-shifting would total no more than a few dollars a month, hardly enough to motivate large-scale behavior change. Using time-of-use rates will continue to be voluntary, so they won’t have any effect on those most energy-profligate. Indeed if such rates ever became compulsory, that would greatly penalize the poor and people whose schedules require greater electricity use during the daytime hours. (The above-mentioned report–by Public Citizen, AARP, Consumers Union et al–expresses grave concerns about potential harmful impacts of moves toward time-based or dynamic pricing.) And certainly, on a hot day no one is going to shift use of an air conditioner to night-time.
It’s true that eventually smart meter systems will inaugurate a later phase that can provide near real-time data about electricity use from various appliances in the home, but the additional financial costs, energy consumption, and wireless radiation required by such systems will make them anathema to most customers. And (as discussed below) even when they are used, they’re likely to actually increase total electricity use rather than decrease it.
What kind of alternative exists to truly encourage electricity conservation? Only a tiny fraction of the money spent on smart meters could be used to provide each household with a small portable energy usage meter. (For example, amazon.com sells a plug-in Kill-a-Watt meter for just over $27 total price (including shipping). To determine how much energy a particular appliance or piece of electronics uses, one simply plugs the meter into a wall outlet, then turns on the device after plugging it into the meter; result: immediate device-specific information that the customer can then use to influence future decisions. One of the most significant contributors to a typical customer’s electricity usage is what is known as “phantom” (or “vampire”) loads, that is, the continuous and significant usage due to things just being plugged into the wall outlet. This is particularly true for instant-on electronics, chargers kept plugged in, etc. An highly-experienced energy conservation specialist recently reported: “In a recent energy survey for a home in Redwood City, I found that the phantom electrical loads for the family’s home theater system (when the system was actually off but still plugged in!) was in fact greater that the combined electrical usage of their two refrigerators.” Using a simple Kill-a-Watt meter, a customer could quickly learn how much energy is being wasted in this way, and instead switch off the power strips into which these devices have been plugged. This simple change can collectively save a lot of energy. Customers can be further motivated by utility-provided rebates for cutting electricity usage by a certain percentage. (Alternatively, a device called a TED meter can be installed to give detailed usage information; but, for most customers, this more-expensive meter—which would need to be installed by an electrician–would be overkill compared to the Kill-a-Watt.)
And, for 99% of customers, a cheap and effective approach to encourage time-shifting would be to provide each household with a refrigerator magnet giving an estimate of how much could be saved by shifting prime-time appliance use at each later hour of the day. Most people do not even read or understand their phone bill. A magnet on the refrigerator–telling the relative wattage per hour usage of various appliances and electronic devices–would be far more user-friendly for nearly all customers than having to go online, check past usage information, and remember what combination of appliances and devices were in use at any given time.
Say more about the likelihood that, overall, smart meter systems can actually increase overall electricity use.
To utilize the system that will provide real-time data for individual appliances, the consumer will need to purchase expensive new appliances containing built-in wireless transmitters and receivers. They would also have to install a “Home Area Network”, including a wireless router which sends a powerful signal 24/7. All connected appliances will be sending information to the smart meter, to be bounced from there via all the surrounding meters to the utility’s data collector device and eventually to the regional office. All these levels will add considerably more electricity usage that is not needed currently. Besides the energy required for data transmission (and repetition), even the internal meter electronics (especially the switching power supply) consumes energy 24/7, effectively acting as yet another “vampire” device at each service location. (Keep in mind that, in PG&E’s service territory alone, many millions of smart electric meters will be operating simultaneously, not to mention all the smart gas meters and water meters that will soon be joining them.)
In addition, these pulses of data (PG&E predicts they will be every 8 seconds) will collectively require storage (in a form available for online access 24/7) of absolutely huge amounts of information. (A U.S. utility industry newsletter estimates that by 2015 annual smart meter data storage requirements will climb to 35 petabytes, where 1 petabyte=1 billion megabytes.) The storage and server equipment required for this will operate 24/7 and will itself require a tremendous increase in electricity usage.
To make the energy accounting complete, we need to not forget the contributions to overall carbon footprint by externalities such as the manufacture, shipment and installation of all these meters, as well as the collection and disposal of still-functional analog meters. (Will they be landfilled close to home, or shipped to Asia for disposal there?) It is true that there will also be a reduced contribution to carbon footprint by virtue of less need for on-site meter-reading; however, this energy cost could be mostly eliminated by offering a program wherein users of electromechanical analog meters have their monthly bills estimated, with on-site readings only twice a year when the rate structure changes seasonally.
Factor in all these various elements, and it is exceedingly likely that overall carbon footprint will rise, not fall. We can be certain that the utilities—while busily touting their predictions of reduced peak electricity consumption due to smart meters–will ignore these additional energy costs that would be part of a more honest accounting. Hopefully environmentalists and others will see the truth below the veneer of the utilities’ “funny math”.
Please say a bit about the Smart Grid.
The Smart Grid is a grand concept that includes helping getting electric power from where it’s produced to where it’s needed, It is true that more advanced infrastructure and design certainly can be helpful in making the overall grid more efficient and reliable. But these improvements can easily be made without any need for monitoring individual customers’ usage 24/7. It is also the case that—if connections to customers’ homes were indeed needed (they are not!)—wired fiber optics could be used, extending all the way from the substations to the individual customer locations.
Wireless smart meter systems turn out to be not a boon for the environment, but rather only a huge profit-and-control center for electronics and software manufacturers and for utilities—all of which have expended considerable lobbying money and campaign dollars to encourage federal government initiatives benefiting them. Unfortunately, to date some of our largest national environmental organizations appear to not have taken the time to look beyond surface assumptions and the utilities’ unsubstantiated “wishful-thinking” claims not justified by real-world data; hopefully, this situation will change if such groups can be persuaded to take a deeper look.
Alexander Binik is a preventive health and energy conservation consultant, and is Executive Director of DE-Toxics Institute in Fairfax. He is also a licensed psychotherapist.
Copies of the Sierra Club San Francisco Letter Demanding a Halt to “Smart” Meter Installation can be downloaded here: SierraClubLetter (pdf).
Read more about how corporate enviro groups are turning a blind eye to smart meter damage to human health and the environment: The Green Sheen Wearing Thin- How Corporate Environmental Organizations are Providing Cover for the Mounting Ecological Catastrophe of the “Smart Grid”