Smart meter use varies between Fort Smith area, Northwest Arkansas

by The City Wire staff ( 74 views 

The days of meter readers venturing out in the elements to measure energy consumption has become a thing of the past, at least at two providers of energy in the Fort Smith area. Smart meter use remains limited in Northwest Arkansas.

Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative Corporation and Oklahoma Gas and Electric confirm they have rolled out new smart grid technology that, among other things, eliminates the need for a meter reader to visit each customer's locale simply to collect information on energy usage.

"Our smart technology is fully deployed, so each one of our customers today has a new digital meter, a communicating meter," said Brian Alford of Oklahoma City-based OG&E.

According to Alford, digital meters that communicate back to a home base or corporate office communicate not just how much energy was used during a given billing period, but also peak usage times.

"With the smart technology, customers now have access to more information about their energy usage, how they're using energy, what that energy is costing and how it gives them information in real time to make changes rather than seeing a (large) bill show up at the end of the month."

Since the rollout, which started in October 2009 and was completed toward the end of 2011, Alford said customers have saved 120 megawatts of power. For residential customers in Arkansas, he said that equals about $83 for the entire summer, averaging about $20 per month in savings.

Greg Davis of Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative said members of the cooperative posted a reduced level of energy usage for the first time in 2012, about nine years after AVECC began a phased rollout of the system.

"2012 was the first year that we saw consumption go down. It was minuscule, but that's huge considering that for the 76 years we've been in business, it's done nothing but go up," he said. "Again, we still had more customers coming in (to the system), but there was less usage for the first time ever."

With customers now able to see in real time how they are consuming energy and are able to take steps to reduce consumption, Alford said it should help utilities like OG&E delay the construction of new power generation facilities, again saving customers money.

"Our goal is to not have to add any additional incremental fossil fuel generation," he said. "We're wanting to push the need for new power plants to at least 2020. To do that, we have to reduce demand on our system and to do that, we have (given) our customers the tools and technology to do that."

Giving customers those tools did not come without a cost, though OG&E found a way to provide the technology without passing on costs to its customers. Alford said OG&E spent approximately $130 million in stimulus funding provided by the U.S. Department of Energy in order to deploy the smart grid technology.

At AVECC, Manager of Engineering Shawn Walling said it was hard to pinpoint the exact costs since it spanned over several years, but he said it ranged between $5 million and $10 million for the much-smaller cooperative.

Davis said even with the costs, it would save money not only through reductions in energy consumption, but also through reducing the amount of cost associated with sending employees into the field to do the readings now that everything could be read digitally.

Peter Main, a spokesman for Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO), said his company had only rolled out a limited number of features associated with smart grid technology.

"I guess in terms of meters, we do have a portion of our customer meter base that are one way meters that are read remotely," he said. "They use automated meter reading technology, or AMR. These are one-way meters, strictly for gathering the meter data. They're not true smart meters, which would be two-way communication. So we do have a portion of our system with AMR technology."

Main said the total number of customers on SWEPCO's system in Northwest Arkansas and the Fort Smith regions would be "about 20% of our customers," adding Eureka Springs in Carroll County was the one city "where most of the community is on the system."

Main said there are no plans to expand the smart grid in the area, adding that to do such an investment would be an inestimable task at this point.

A recent study from Navigant Research highlighted some of the increased costs to local utilities for not just the meters and other external infrastructure, but also IT systems needed to complement the external infrastructure upgrades. The study explained many of the challenges utilities faced, largely explaining why there could be differences in smart grid technologies between utilities, even in areas like Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas that are served by utilities with vastly different levels of smart grid availability.

Alford said unlike SWEPCO, OG&E's entire system was automated — largely due to the stimulus funds — providing additional cost savings for not only customers, but also his utility, which now has the ability to turn electricity service on or off from a distance, again saving his crews trips into the field.

With two of the area's energy providers fully transitioned to the new technology that has already started yielding lower energy usage, Walling of AVECC said local energy customers have likely seen the last "game change" for the next several years, saying, "As far as a game changer down the road, I don't see one right now."