Commentary

Smart Power Meters Will Save Us Money and Reduce Carbon Emissions

NB Power's Point Lepreau Generating Station. (Image: NB Power)

As a New Brunswicker keen on lowering my power bills and reducing our province’s carbon footprint, I’m a fan of smart power meters. Here’s why.

In 2009, Bob Gilligan, Vice President of Transmission and Distribution for GE Energy, famously said, “Today, most consumers live in a black hole when it comes to information about their energy consumption and costs.”

I fear that’s still mostly true. When it comes to power consumption, few of us know the difference between a light bulb, a television and a baseboard heater. The reason? The only feedback we get is a bill that arrives a month later, lumps everything together and focuses on dollars rather than kilowatt-hours. It’s hard to take ownership of our energy reality and modify our consumption when we don’t have the tools to do so.

On the other hand, real-time feedback can be a powerful tool for positive change. Several years ago, I installed a simple device at home that displayed our family’s power consumption in real-time. The result? We very quickly learned our baseline power consumption, saw what made it fluctuate and learned how to save.

Smart meters will give consumers the information they need to learn about their consumption and how they too can save.

Gateway technology

To me, the greater promise of smart meters lies in their ability to defer expensive power plants and to facilitate more renewable energy.

Power peaks are an unfortunate reality of our grid, and winter morning and suppertime peaks are the worst. They tend to set the bar for how much generating capacity we need. But even though a kilowatt hour of power at 8 am in January is much more expensive to supply than a kilowatt hour at 2 am in June, today’s meters have no way of differentiating. So we pay the same.

The result: we have zero incentive to reduce our consumption during peak periods. And it may reasonably be expected that our winter peaks will continue to rise largely independent of power prices, hastening the need for new “peaker” power plants that will then sit idle most of the year. That’s doubly expensive.

Smart meters, on the other hand, offer the possibility of better matching energy supply and demand because they enable time-of-day pricing, where power rates at different times of the day or year better reflect the actual cost of supplying that power. Time-of-day pricing would give consumers a financial incentive to shift consumption out of peak periods, saving them money. Equally important, it would allow NB Power to put off building new power plants, saving us all money.

As an NB homeowner, I believe time-of-day rates would save me money.  I’d start doing laundry in off-peak hours; our present washer already has a one-button process for delayed starting.  I’d install a timer so my hot water tank would reheat overnight.  I recently bought an electric car, and it can easily be set to charge when rates are cheapest.  If I heated with baseboard heaters, I’d install a thermal storage unit (not new technology; they’ve been in use for years in Nova Scotia and elsewhere) that would take my heating load out of the morning peak.

To me, the best proof of the power of price signals to create behavioural change is gas pricing, where tiny price differences lead consumers to change where they buy.  And perhaps we should take inspiration from Texas, where some energy suppliers offer power for free after hours and on weekends, to help lower their peaks.

I realize time-of-day rates have not yet been proposed for NB – but they are not even an option without smart meters.

Another big benefit: smart meters will pave the way for us to generate and use more wind, solar and other renewable power, and transition away from fossil fuels.

Millions of smart meters are already in use across Canada and the US, and the EU is aiming for 80 per cent smart meters by 2020. All this would suggest we are already behind a large pack, and it’s time for the province to get on board too.

True, smart meters have a price tag; like anyone else, I expect NB Power to do its homework and deliver the best value for New Brunswickers. But since smart meters pay back, I’d suggest we need to view them as an investment rather than an expense.

An investment that will help us save on our bills and reduce our emissions.

Carl Duivenvoorden (www.changeyourcorner.com; @CDuivenv) is a speaker, writer and sustainability consultant living in Upper Kingsclear, New Brunswick.  

Huddle publishes commentaries from groups and individuals on important business issues facing the Maritimes. These commentaries do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Huddle.