The allure of the air conditioner on a hot summer afternoon soon could become less attractive because of high-tech household meters that would keep customers and their utility apprised of fluctuating power usage and prices.
Those souped-up meters moved a step closer to reality Tuesday as Southern California Edison told regulators that the devices would save its customers $109 million more than the program's estimated 20-year cost of $1.97 billion.
The utility's conclusion that the benefits outweigh the project's cost was a key hurdle on the path toward introducing so-called smart meters, which Edison said would also reduce consumption during crucial periods by as much as 1,000 megawatts, equal to the output of a large power plant.
"We are ready to deploy the most significant advance in metering technology in a century," said Lynda Ziegler, vice president for customer service at the state's second-largest investor-owned electric utility. Edison, a subsidiary of Rosemead-based Edison International, provides power to more than 13 million people across central, coastal and Southern California.
Consumer advocates, however, are wary. They point out that the program initially would raise electricity rates 1%, a figure that would be offset only in later years by the benefits outlined by the utility.
"Edison is assuming that people will use and respond to this stuff. . . but we don't have any guaranteed benefits here," said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based Utility Reform Network. "The only thing that's guaranteed is the cost."
Edison's proposal is part of a wave of advanced metering initiatives being proposed across the country. Regulators have backed the trend because the newer systems make it possible for consumers to see when power prices are highest and to curb their use during those times.
The system provides "knowledge about how you use your energy and how much it costs you, so that you have control over it," Ziegler said Tuesday. Edison envisions rolling out voluntary plans that would offer customers lower rates in return for curbing power usage during peak-demand periods.
Spatt, the consumer advocate, scoffed at the notion.
"Whether the consumer has a smart meter or the consumer has a dumb meter, the bottom line for the consumer is that the less [electricity] they use, the less they pay, and the more they use, the more they pay," Spatt said. "That's a message I'm willing to deliver for free."
This summer, Edison is set to begin field tests at 3,000 to 5,000 sites. If it wins approval from the state Public Utilities Commission next year, the utility would install 5.3 million smart meters to cover all its residential and business customers who use less than 200 kilowatts of power at any given moment.
Other utilities in California, including Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in the Bay Area and San Diego Gas & Electric Co., are embarking on similar advanced metering projects.
Edison's plan doesn't contemplate any changes to the existing rate structure, so customers wouldn't be obligated to participate in any time-based pricing plans that might be offered. But regulators in California and elsewhere have expressed support for overhauling rates to incorporate time-of-day pricing in all bills.
Looking toward the future, Edison and others see the new meters being able to communicate with other household appliances and determining when energy hogs such as air conditioners should be powered down and then restarted.
Edison's meters would have additional features. The devices would be in constant communication with the utility, providing data on power usage and notifying officials of service interruptions. They could also be controlled remotely, giving Edison service representatives the ability to start or stop electricity service immediately, instead of forcing customers to wait for crews to do the work.
Another attraction: Edison would be able to cut costs by doing away with meter readers who roam the utility's 50,000-square-mile territory, manually recording customers' electricity use.
Ted Geilen, a senior utilities engineer and policy analyst at the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, an independent arm of the state utilities commission, said it was too soon to judge Edison's plan because the final application was filed Tuesday.
The division has "been pretty happy with the way they've approached the problem. . . . We'll have to see if the numbers work out," he said.