A CPS Energy employee checks a meter. Photo courtesy of CPS Energy.
A CPS Energy employee checks a meter. Photo courtesy of CPS Energy.

CPS Energy will begin deploying installation crews Monday to replace analog electric meters with the first of what eventually will be 740,000 smart meters in San Antonio. Customers will receive notices one month in advance of the meter work.

The $290 million Smart Grid Initiative aims to save the customer and the utility energy and money.  Installing smart meters throughout the CPS Energy service territory will take four years with completion set for 2018.

Smart meter installation map courtesy of CPS Energy.
Smart meter installation map courtesy of CPS Energy. Click to enlarge

A pilot program that placed smart meters in 40,000 homes in 2013 saved CPS Energy nearly $1 million in maintenance and operational costs associated with contract workers reading analog meters, according to utility officials.

A group of 25 residents from Alamo Heights who received meter replacement notices in the mail attended an Energy Savings and Tech Tours meeting held at the McNay Art Museum last week. The smart meters will make it easier for customers to track their own energy consumption, which should lead to reduced bills as people become smarter about managing that consumption, CPS spokesman John Moreno told the group. 

Instead of being surprised at the end of the month with a huge electricity bill, customers will be able to review daily energy consumption data and charges via their online accounts. Usage rate is collected every 15 minutes. Customers will be able to see the impact that a 100-degree day has on a system where the thermostat is set to keep a home at 78 degrees all day – an incentive to adjust it upwards to 85 degrees before leaving for work.

Used in conjunction with CPS Energy’s free Home Manager – which allows for electronic control over your air conditioner, electric water heater and pool pump settings – and various appliance rebate programs, customers who take advantage of the new energy management tools will reduce their electricity use and their monthly utility bills.

Smart meters also allow for the possibility of introducing other advanced money-saving techniques. Moreno described a possible opt-in program that would allow customers to see when electricity is the least costly and opt to use more electricity during off-peak times. Demand on the grid changes hourly, and CPS Energy meets rising demand by firing up coal plants or purchasing power on the open market. As demand peaks, the cost per kWh increases, and more stress is put on the grid – sometimes causing rolling outages.

CPS Energy's Justin Fisher explains how the free Home Manager program works to a curious customer. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
CPS Energy’s Daniel Fisher explains how the free Home Manager program works to a curious customer. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“For instance, let’s say from 3-7 p.m. electricity is more expensive because that’s during peak (demand),” Moreno said.  “If you could see that the price (per kWh) would go down from 7-12 p.m., you could wait to do your laundry until it’s cheaper.”

Customers can currently opt-in to CPS Energy’s Demand Response/Peak Energy Saver program, which provides some financial incentives and discounts to allow the utility to turn up and down thermostats according to peak hours or “conservation events.”

The smart meters transmit outage alerts in real-time to CPS Energy, while analog meters cannot send information. Right now CPS Energy often learns of an outage only when a customer notifies the utility by telephone.  A smart meter automatically generates a “last gasp message” to a control center. When power goes out, a red dot will start to blink and a response crew will be deployed to investigate.

“This gives us the opportunity to get (an outage) taken care of before (the customer) even knows about it,” Moreno said.

Landis + Gyr smart meters. Photo courtesy of CPS Energy.
Landis + Gyr smart meters. Photo courtesy of CPS Energy.

The technology also allows for remote activation and disconnection of accounts. Rather than having a crew come out to manually activate electricity in a new home or apartment or deactivate when you move, it will be as easy as flipping a switch remotely.

From an operation’s standpoint, CPS Energy will save millions in expenses relating to staffing and fleet costs. Fewer on-site visits means a reduction in vehicles on the road – reducing carbon emissions and vehicle maintenance. Current meter readers will transition into other positions, Moreno said, and trained in quality assurance and how to read new meters in the event of a malfunction.

Based on data gathered in other cities that have undergone the smart meter transition, CPS Energy officials expect one percent or less of customers to opt-out of the program. Moreno shakes his head reluctantly, “It’s their choice, but they have to pay for it.”

Customers elsewhere have opted out for reasons ranging from suspicions that the meters somehow are devices for the government to spy on citizens, to fears driven by Internet disinformation that the meters cause house fires.

For those who do choose to opt out, there is a one-time fee is to install an Offsite Meter Read meter, and a $20 reading fee each time CPS Energy has to dispatch a meter reader to the residence. Low income customers can apply for a reduced rate.

CPS energy opt out smart meter fee graph

During last week’s informational meeting at the McNay, customers questioned the affect smart meters would have on their monthly bill and their daily lives. Smart meters do not require any customer maintenance.  There are no fees associated with the installation of the smart meters, but the 2014 rate increase does cover the program’s costs.

“I was worried about all the technology at first,” said Peggy Foerster, an Alamo Heights resident. She attended the meeting with her husband, Paul, to learn more. They spent several minutes talking to Thomas Malek of Silver Spring Networks, the contractor working with  CPS Energy to oversee the smart grid network and meter implementation. Representatives from Corix, the installation contractor, also were on hand.

“Seems easy to me, as long as I don’t have to install it,” Peggy said, laughing.

Some have expressed concerns about potential health effects and security issues. Smart meters use radio frequencies just like cell phones, televisions, and wireless Internet.  The frequencies are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission and have been deemed safe in dozens of medical studies, including a 2014 report by the Electric Power Research Institute commissioned by CPS Energy and a 2011 report by the California Council on Science and Technology.

Smart meters are assigned their own frequency by the FCC and therefore should not interfere with other devices.

“There are too many hackers,” said one attendee who did not want to be identified. “It’s being done too fast, too soon.”

The CPS Energy network itself is a secure one, so information transmitted from smart meter to one of several relay hubs located around the city and then to CPS Energy is safe, Marek said. Each device has a physical barrier, sends encrypted data, and ceases to function if someone tampers with it. Even if the network was somehow hacked, account numbers are not connected with names and addresses until the bill is processed at CPS Energy. Addresses are only used in the event of an outage to call maintenance teams into action.

“No personal information is being transmitted,” Marek said. “Just an ID number and usage data every 15 minutes.”

Some citizens expressed concern that too much information is being gathered – that a digital network opens up the grid to attack and abuse. National and local anti-smart meter groups – yes, they exist – have suggested, without any evidence to support the conspiracy theories, that information about customer lifestyles and habits can be gleaned from the data.

“CPS Energy does not participate in selling customer information to third parties,” said Moreno. While account information is kept private, the federal government has subpoenaed utility records just as it has accessed individual bank records when criminal activity is suspected.

Local travel agent John Joseph is another customer seriously considering opting out of the program. Joseph has four properties in Alamo Heights and a “healthy skepticism” about the program, he said.

Some of his homes are historical and have old wiring, so he’s concerned about the electrical compatibility of the new technology and the risk of fire. He pointed to fires in Canada, Philadelphia, Oregon and other states that resulted in property damage and the recall of hundreds of thousands of meters.

“I don’t have a lot of faith in the City Public Service,” Joseph said, adding that he feels CPS Energy has a bias toward making a profit. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

But investigations into these fires have shown that it’s typically not the smart meter that catches fire. A malfunction in a certain model of Sensus smart meters installed between 2010-2012 caused several fires in Portland. Canadian utilities had similar problems this summer. More commonly, fires start due to faulty installation.

“Smart meters, just like traditional analog meters, cannot ignite,” Moreno said. Rather, fires start due to an “improper socket connection.” That is, the smart meter isn’t completely or properly connected to the base socket on the outside of residences, creating heat, an electrical arc, and in some cases, a fire.

CPS spokesman John Moreno explains how a smart meter connects to a base. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
CPS spokesman John Moreno explains how a smart meter connects to a base. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

About 10 percent of each batch of Sweden-based Landis+Gyr smart meters are tested by CPS Energy. If any are found to be faulty, the entire batch is rejected. So far, so good.

“Landis+Gyr is unaware of any case where our meter was the source of a fire,” stated Landis+Gyr spokesperson Stan March in an email. “Industry studies point to poor installation processes as a key factor in hot socket cases.”

Millions of smart meters have been installed by Silver Spring and Cori, Moreno said. “They have an excellent record … None of their installations have resulted in fires.”

“We’re reaping the benefit of not being first,” CPS Energy spokesperson Tracy Hamilton said.

Notifications will be mailed to residents about one month before installation and reminder phone calls will remind  residents of the meter exchange one week in advance.

Several public meetings have been held within each of the installation zones in phase one of the roll out (see map) to inform CPS Energy customers about the new electricity meters as well as 360,000 gas meters and how they work with the public utility’s Smart Grid Initiative.

*Featured/top image: A CPS Energy employee checks an electricity meter. Photo courtesy of CPS Energy.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org