A smart electricity meter with dollar amount. Photo is a promo image from Rainforest Automation

Are smart meters Nova Scotia Power is proposing to install on every home over the next few years as smart as they should be?

Will ratepayers get the best bang for their buck ($133 million to automate meter-reading and provide them with online read-outs of daily energy consumption), or is the utility missing an opportunity to encourage their customers to use less electricity?

Those are just two questions discussed in hundreds of pages of written filings currently before the Utility and Review Board, which regulates electricity in this province.

There’s little doubt that Advanced Metering Infrastructure meters (AMI) represent a step forward. The current meters are decades old. The meters NS Power wants to buy are equipped with digital technology that uses a wireless network to permit remote two-way communication between the meter at your home and the power company.

On stormy mornings, for instance, the meter will automatically “ping” and tell the company when and where power is out. Currently the company depends on customers to telephone the Customer Care Centre and report outages. By digital standards, this is a quaint custom. NS Power estimates only 20 per cent of its “powerless” customers dial in their local outage — perhaps because phone service also frequently goes down during “weather events.”

In its application to replace 26,269 meters beginning in 2019, the company is promising faster outage restoration times. Crews will no longer have to drive around to visually inspect whether your power is back on; a soon-to-be-installed wireless network will relay that information directly to the office.

NS Power estimates it will save 10 per cent on overtime costs associated with storm damage (about $11.5 million over the 20-year life of the meters) based on the experience of two utilities in New York State.

But that amount pales in comparison with what the utility will save when it eliminates 72.5 full-time staff positions involved in visiting homes to manually inspect and read the meters and send out bills. NS Power estimates automating the meter reading process will save $57 million over the same 20 years. The company says it is working on re-training and finding other jobs for its employees disrupted by the change but it’s not clear if  or how those initiatives will be followed up.

Here’s a short list of the benefits NS Power claims will result from installing AMI meters already being used by 70 per cent of Canadians in provinces outside Atlantic Canada:

• Reduce the cost of electricity for customers, providing savings of $38.1 million over and above the capital cost of $133.2 million;

• Improve reliability for customers, as NS Power will know immediately when a customer’s power is out and be able to respond more quickly;

• Provide customers with online tools and much more detailed information about their electricity usage, including “alerts” or advisories that can be emailed or texted when customers have reached a pre-determined amount.

• Modernize NS Power’s electricity grid to be “more flexible and responsive.” With two-way communication through AMI and more frequent access to data, AMI enables many of the requirements needed to support the future grid;

• Serve as a platform for future improvements. AMI creates the platform for future customer service enhancements and new products as they are invented, such as electric vehicle connection to the grid, home automation (i.e. ‘smart homes’) and streetlight monitoring and control.

Installing “smart” AMI meters in this province will mean NS Power customers who sign up online through MyAccount will be able to see exactly how much energy they use on a daily basis. Studies by utilities that have already moved to smart meters, many offering data to customers on an hourly basis, suggest knowledge is power when it comes to conserving energy. Over 20 years, NS Power estimates a $43 million benefit through energy conservation linked to changes in consumer behaviour.

But Peter Ritchie says NS Power could achieve savings much greater than $2 million a year by providing customers with an even “smarter” meter to enable them to make better choices. The energy consultant lives in rural Antigonish County in a PV solar home. He takes advantage of special time-of-day prices NS Power makes available to people who heat with electricity. His family turns on the in-floor radiant heat overnight when it costs half as much as during the day, and runs appliances such as dishwashers and dryers after 11 pm.

Ritchie spent two to three years as a sales rep for “in home display” technologies designed to work with AMI meters to provide consumers with “real time” minute-by-minute data that break down how much electricity is being consumed by various home appliances. But Ritchie says the latest generation of AMI smart meters — equipped with Zigbee radios — make in-home displays unnecessary. He contends that NS Power consumers would be better served by these smart meters than the ones the power company proposes, which provide only a daily snapshot of total electrical consumption, without breaking out the components.

Zigbee (so named for the waggly dance that bees do as they enter the hive) is hardware that creates personal area networks using low-power digital radios designed for small-scale projects which only need a wireless connection, such as home automation or medical device data collection. It’s been compared to a Fitbit for the home, or Bluetooth for a cellphone.

But NS Power isn’t buying it.

“This phase of the AMI project rollout does not include active Zigbee radios that would establish a connection between the customer’s energy devices (such as appliances) directly to the smart meter,” said Tiffany Chase, spokesperson for NS Power. “However, our AMI platform has the capability to enable this and other customer solutions in future in a safe and secure manner.”

That answer disappoints Ritchie. He also challenges Chase’s contention that without Zigbee embedded in the circuit board of the AMI “platform” it has chosen, NS Power will still be able to track electricity use by home appliances in the future.

“The AMI meters they are proposing will only limit future monitoring abilities,” claims Ritchie. “It would be like me saying I’m going to buy a flip phone so that I can surf the Web. Nonsense, plain and simple. If I can use a cell phone analogy, the utility plans to replace their 1985 Motorola ‘brick phones’ with some 2001 ‘flip phones.’ Sure, it is technically an upgrade, but why bother when you could have a ‘smart phone’ at a comparable price? I’m not suggesting the utility should be investing in the iPhone 10 here, but the equivalent of a fourth generation iPhone is the kind of technology being widely used by utilities around the world.”

“Widely used” may be a stretch. A check with a smart meter supplier in British Columbia confirms that in Canada, BC Hydro, the province of Quebec, the Northwest Territories and Saskatchewan, and cities such as Edmonton and London, Ont. already have or are in the midst of changing to AMI smart meters equipped with Zigbee.

Half a dozen U.S. states, including Vermont, California, and Texas, are using AMI meters with Zigbee. So does a state in Australia, and China is actively looking at it. (Historical footnote:  earlier versions of the smart meter which didn’t work well in Ontario and Quebec have now been completely replaced. A number of smart meters that caught fire in Saskatchewan were found to be substandard. NS Power says the smart meter it plans to buy complies with the latest protocol.) That said, Ritchie raises an interesting point around value for money.

The additional cost of buying a smart meter equipped with Zigbee radio is less than $10 (or about five per cent more than the $119 which NS Power is proposing to spend per meter). We don’t know the actual brand name of the AMI meter because that’s shielded by commercial confidentiality considerations. We do know it’s a brand-new product and the utility has told the UARB it has a bulk purchase agreement to buy with neighbouring NB Power and two other Emera-owned affiliate companies— Emera Maine and Tampa Electric.

NS Power says this joint purchase will save ratepayers in Nova Scotia $18 million over the life of the project. It’s a deal that Bruce Outhouse, the UARB lawyer, wants to know more about, since the last hearing exposed potential conflicts of interest in business dealings between NS Power and its parent company Emera.

Outhouse also questioned why NS Power wasn’t proposing to introduce a new time-of-day price linked to the increasing information it says tenants and homeowners will receive about daily energy use and which might encourage us to change the way we do chores or heat the house. In Quebec, Ontario, and BC, all ratepayers can take advantage of time-of-day pricing. In this province, that option is limited to residential customers with electric heat (about 40 per cent of households according to NS Power) and who also sign up for  thermal storage.

“Why hasn’t NS Power proposed implementation of any new rates/customer-specific pricing that will encourage customers to use electricity more effectively concurrent with AMI implementation?,” the UARB’s Outhouse asked in an information request to the power company.

Here’s the vague and woolly response filed by the power company:

NS Power’s recommended approach to realizing the full pricing potential of the AMI system is to take advantage of the estimated three-year window between issuance of an Advanced Metering Infrastructure Board Decision on the AMI capital application and project completion to develop a rate strategy and tariffs which the Company is confident will meet the expectations of customers and support emerging electricity opportunities, including net-metering, energy storage and electric vehicles. The foregoing is not to suggest that during the interim period the Company will not be examining pricing opportunities to better serve customers and support innovation in the electricity sector.

NS Power’s only specific reference in its smart meter proposal to shift consumer behaviour appears to be a short-term “Critical Peak Pricing Program.” It would reward people who volunteer to use less energy during days when demand soars (such as during a prolonged cold snap or summer heat wave) by offering a price break during that period. The CPPP is floated as a possibility, but lacks timelines or further detail.

Consumer Advocate John Merrick has also filed close to 200 questions. Merrick wants to know why — since NS Power has used New York State as an example of a utility where AMI meters have saved money on operating costs — the power company isn’t planning to follow that state’s example in implementing a Conservation Voltage Reduction or CVR  program at points along the distribution system that saved the state big bucks.

NS Power filed this response:

Voltage data collected from AMI meters can be used as a key input to a future CVR program. CVR is a potential conservation and capacity relief benefit that was not included into the AMI business case, as it relies on additional distribution equipment investment (capacitor banks, voltage regulators, etc.).

Peter Ritchie thinks another answer to that question might be similar to why time-of-day discounts aren’t being implemented at the same time as the new meters.

“My contention is that the utility doesn’t want its customers to have access to consumption data that will inevitably allow them to conserve electricity because it could affect the utility’s bottom line.”

Submissions to the regulator from the Consumer Advocate, the Ecology Action Centre, and the province’s Efficiency One utility are all due at the end of this week. Following the written hearing, the UARB will determine if the smart meters NS Power wants to buy will be smart enough to serve the best interests of ratepayers.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. “My contention is that the utility doesn’t want its customers to have access to consumption data that will inevitably allow them to conserve electricity because it could affect the utility’s bottom line.”

    – Precisely. Same reason NSP still limits the size of solar array one can grid-tie.

    Allowing the public more fine-grain monitoring of voltages could also reveal how shabby the transmission system currently is (regular outages, surges and sags). This would also cost them in repair / improvement costs as deficiencies are revealed.