Electric utilities have rolled out millions of smart meters nationwide and around the globe. These companies and their customers are now shifting from a one-way, once-a-month relationship to a continuous, two-way engagement.

Case in point: Southern California Edison (SCE), a member of Utilimetrics, will have deployed close to 4 million smart meters by the end of this year, in a rollout that began in 2009. Nearly 5 million will be installed by the completion of the program next year. The utility is in the process of implementing cutting-edge programs to help consumers use their smart meters to save even more money by making informed energy-usage decisions.

SCE's Success Story with Smart Meters

In April 2011, SCE began to introduce smart-meter-enabled programs and services to a portion of its customer base. Paula Campbell, Edison SmartConnect's program office director, said these programs are available already to more than 390,000 customers, including 24/7 access to interval data by logging on to SCE's website. Eventually, these programs will be offered to all customers.

In addition, SCE customers with access to new programs and services can sign up for SCE's Budget Assistant. Customers can use the tool to set a monthly spending goal and select from e-mail, voice or text status alerts to notify them weekly or only if they are projected to exceed their goal.

SCE customers with smart meters also can save with the Save Power Day Incentive, a program that will reward residential customers with a bill credit for reducing their electricity consumption on designated “Save Power Days,” such as during a heat wave. Customers who trim their energy usage on those days receive a credit on their bill.

Smart meters also provide customers with the added convenience of remote service turn-ons. Campbell notes that about 25% of SCE customers move in or out every year. If a customer is moving, they can simply notify SCE of their move date and have the service transferred remotely.

Benefits for Utilities and Homeowners

Not only SCE, but also other Utilimetrics members are deploying smart meter technology. The following are five advantages of smart meters for both utilities and their customers.

  1. Smart meters give homeowners control over their energy usage

    Homeowners now can view energy usage on an hourly basis or more frequently, if not in real time. This represents a major change for the utility industry. Consumers can go online to receive real-time information about their cell phone usage, yet that option hasn't been possible with electricity until recently.

    The availability of such data represents a tremendous advantage for homeowners, who previously had little visibility into energy usage. Those customers fortunate enough to have smart meters can view their energy usage in real time rather than waiting for a monthly bill.

    Smart meters also benefit utilities, which no longer have to field calls from customers questioning a spike in usage on their monthly bill. By going online, their customers can detect a spike almost immediately.

  2. Customers can curb energy usage

    Through the use of smart meters, consumers can identify which appliances use the most energy and take steps to curb energy usage. By adding the smart meter step to their daily routine, consumers can address usage abnormalities such as a flat-screen TV left on in a bedroom before leaving for the day.

  3. Smart meters can help customers to save money

    Aside from the energy-conservation advantages, smart meter technology has a financial benefit as well. Industry research reveals that homeowners with smart meters can save up to 15% on their monthly utility bill through increased conservation efforts.

    Smart meters offer consumers additional ways to save money by taking advantage of time-of-use rates offered by their utility. Having smart meters in place is the first step toward allowing consumers to take advantage of off-peak rates.

  4. Smart meters make utilities and consumers more efficient

    For example, utilities can respond to storm-related outages more quickly due to smart meter technology. In addition, consumers can turn off appliances or adjust the thermostat remotely via their cell phones.

  5. Smart meters are just the beginning

    Much in the way that millions of apps have been developed for smart phones, utility experts envision the day when similar apps are developed for smart meters. These apps might provide interactive, energy-saving tools that aren't possible today.

    Consumers are clamoring for iPhone-like apps that can help them to conserve energy and reduce energy bills. Smart meters represent the consumer end of the evolving smart grid, and the beginning of a consumer-focused revolution in the utility industry.

Joel Hoiland (jhoiland@utilimetrics.org) is CEO of Utilimetrics, a trade association of utilities, consultants, vendors and other professionals engaged in or considering utility automation.