Some power companies are pulling the plug on old-fashioned mechanical electric meters, and to the likely disappointment of growl-happy dogs, fewer meter-readers will be invading yards across Southern California.
Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas and Electric and San Diego Gas and Electric are upgrading customers to digital "smart meters" that can transmit real-time data about electricity use back to the utility company wirelessly. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is updating meters too, but primarily for larger businesses.
With new meters in place, a power company eventually can provide detailed information to homeowners about how much energy they're using. The hope: Customers can more easily assess and reduce their consumption.
Edison expects that by late 2010, many of its San Gabriel Valley customers will be able to see how much power they use, hour by hour. They also will see their cumulative monthly use, so they can tell if they are nearing the threshold for higher rates. (Edison's five-tier pricing system penalizes greater monthly use.)
"We want to get people to start paying attention to how they consume energy," says Gene Rodrigues, Edison's director of energy efficiency. Studies suggest awareness leads to conservation.
The California Public Utilities Commission wants the three utilities to provide usage data in real time to customers starting next year. People would immediately see, perhaps via an in-home screen, the jump in energy usage every time they turned on the air conditioner or clicked on the TV. Some British homes are already using such a system.
Edison, which has 5 million customers, has rolled out just 170,000 smart meters so far. The company estimates that the $1.6 billion program eventually will pay for itself and cut demand by about 1,000 megawatts, or the equivalent of an average power plant running at capacity.
The upgrade is a major component of a statewide effort to reduce energy demand at peak hours, usually 1 to 6 p.m. in the summer. "If customers reduce usage at that time, the utilities can avoid building additional expensive power plants," says Bruce Kaneshiro, a supervisor for the PUC's energy division. "Or avoid purchasing power to meet that demand."
Edison plans to offer rebates to people who cut back on electricity at peak times, and the company is developing an e-mail or text-message alert system to spread the conservation message when it's needed most. Eventually, the company might charge residential customers more for power during these hours.
The real-time measurements of power use also will help the integration of wind and solar power, sources that aren't available around the clock.
"Conservation and cleaner power sources go hand in hand," says Martin Schlageter, a leader of the environmental group Coalition for Clean Air in Los Angeles. "Smart meters are a way of making the whole infrastructure more efficient."
Smart meters are already spurring the development of "smart" thermostats and appliances that can respond to conservation signals from the smart meters. GE is piloting a refrigerator that delays defrost cycles, a microwave that reduces wattage on command and smart dishwashers and washing machines that can delay cycles to off-peak hours.
For those who can't wait for smart meters to reach them: An after-market power monitor that reads and relays data from standard power meters can be bought online for $100 to $200. It should be checked for compatibility with your meter, it will need to be programmed, and an electrician will need to install some models.