Columbia City Council responds to concerns about automated electric meter

Wednesday, July 2, 2014 | 9:45 p.m. CDT; updated 11:53 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 3, 2014

COLUMBIA — Some Columbia residents are so adamant about their disdain for automated electric meters that the city has created an option for them to choose an old-fashioned analog meter instead.

On June 16, the Columbia City Council passed an ordinance that allows residents who don't want the automated electric meters to pay a one-time, non-refundable $75 activation fee, then $5 a month to have analog meters.

The city has been using automatic meter reading technology for 15 years. Meters that work with the digital system can be read from the street using a cell phone, rather than requiring a utility employee to walk through a customer's yard.

Ryan Williams, assistant director of Columbia Water and Light, said almost all residences in Columbia are equipped with automated readers.

"I would say it's over 99 percent at this point," Williams said.

During the June 16 Columbia City Council meeting, members of the public complained about the potential for invasion of privacy and cited fears about cybersecurity and potential health issues caused by radio waves emitted from automated meter technology.

"I am not comfortable with a device on my house that has not been demonstrated to be safe and secure," said Columbia resident Michael Hueser at the June 16 meeting.

Until the city has done their "due diligence in regards to privacy, health and safety," Hueser said that he feels it is not "just or reasonable to require me to have a smart meter on my house." He said if he does choose to opt out of the automated meter technology, he considers the imposed fees to be "unreasonable."

Williams said the city has no facts to support those worries, particularly the health concerns.

Terry Freeman, residential services supervisor for Columbia Water and Light, said that in terms of the strength of radio waves emitted, "your cell phone is way more harmful than a smart meter could ever be."

"I think there are extreme disadvantages to having analog meters," Williams said. Automated meters require "far less maintenance" as they are able to self-calibrate and self-check. The newer meters are more accurate and do not slow down with time, Williams said.

The initial $75 fee for an analog meter covers the cost of the purchase and installation. The $5 monthly rate covers the cost of manual reading and upkeep.

This option was presented in the wake of an impact report conducted by engineering design firm Burns & McDonnell in partnership with Columbia Water and Light. The impact report addressed recommendations and implementation plans for an Automated Meter Interface, commonly termed "smart meters" and smart grid technology, in the future.

Officials wanted to have an established protocol in place for residents who want to keep their analog meters as the city further explores smart grid technology.

"We will probably always have an opt-out," Williams said.

The study was completed and discussed at the council's June 2 meeting. At that meeting, Mayor Bob McDavid called smart meters an "evolving technology" and said it is likely to grow and become the de facto standard way utilities are monitored in the years ahead.

Automated Meter Interface allows two-way communication with a centralized computer system, which would enable the city to read all meters from a central location. It also provides customers with access to more information about energy consumption in real time.

"It has certain advantages related to (Columbia Water and Light's) productivity and for each of us as clients to know exactly how we are using energy," McDavid said.

Results from the study show that, given the current cost of the technology, wide-scale implementation of Automated Meter Interface isn't yet cost effective for Columbia.

"We do not have a plan that we’re bringing forward right away," Columbia Water and Light director Tad Johnsen said at the council's June 2 meeting. "This is something we’re looking at probably in the next two to three years."

Johnsen and Williams said the city is looking at the best options for a pilot program in the next few years. The study by Burns & McDonnell found that for Columbia, a hybrid system that uses strategically placed combinations of both automated meters and interfaces could be most effective.

This hybrid system would equip a small percentage of homes with Automated Meter Interface technology and leave the existing automated meters in place on most houses. The interface system then would be able to gather meter readings wirelessly from homes with automated meters in the surrounding area. This data would be sent back to the centralized computer system using the two-way communication capabilities of the interface technology.

Williams said the city often gets requests from people who want to know more about their energy use. He said the city's goal is to provide that data so consumers can be more be more energy efficient. There has been a rising demand from customers who want to supplement their energy usage with renewable, on-site options, such as solar panels.

"Having a dial telling me what my estimated bill that day is going to be and how turning my thermostat up a couple degrees is going to save me six bucks, eight bucks or whatever, I think is the kind of information that will lead to conservation," McDavid said at the June 2 meeting.

Although analog meters will remain available, not having a smart meter could exclude residents from being able to participate in future programs. Williams said the city is looking into developing incentive programs with the goal of reducing the aggregate energy load of the city during peak times.

For Columbia as a whole, "from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., electricity usage basically skyrockets," Williams said. This sharp spike makes electricity more expensive overall, and Williams said efforts made to reach a more even rate throughout the course of the day would generate savings. Through energy use incentive programs, these savings would be passed along to the customer.

Williams said this will be particularly important in the future if electric cars continue to grow in popularity.

"Electric cars will cause a huge spike in demand, and it's going to be at night," he said.

The study by Burns & McDonnell also examined problems in other districts that occurred after Automated Meter Interface technology was implemented. The majority of these issues were due to glitches in communication systems and problems handling the mass amount of data.

The ability to access more information often "brings with it issues about how to deal with big data," Williams said. "This is why we want to go through all our options with this system slowly."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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