By David Coleman, College Station Interim Assistant City Manager
College Station Utilities customers have grown accustomed to workers entering their backyards to read the electric meter. No one looks forward to the monthly intrusion on their privacy, but the work is necessary to get an accurate measure of your electricity usage.
The situation is as uncomfortable for our readers as it is for our customers. You don’t like the invasion of your privacy; our readers don’t like encountering startled Rottweilers. If only a better, less intrusive way existed to check your monthly electricity usage.
Well, it does. And CSU and its electric customers will soon have access to it.
Last month, the College Station City Council directed CSU to move forward with implementing Automated Metering Infrastructure (AMI), commonly called smart meters. The process will take about three years to complete. The change will apply only to electric meters, while water will continue to install AMI-ready meters for future implementation.
Smart meters record energy usage just like traditional meters but send and receive the data through wireless communications technology. That eliminates the need for us to enter your property on a regular basis. The new system will not reduce our workforce, either, since we’ll hire meter and system technicians to replace the readers.
Since 2010, AMI use has doubled with about half the nation’s electricity customer accounts now using smart meters. In 2016, Texas added the most residential smart meters of any state. Bryan Texas Utilities (BTU) successfully implemented its AMI system more than six years ago.
The council’s decision has raised some questions about the pros and cons of smart meters. Even though the city hasn’t yet requested proposals from potential contractors, we can still address many of the issues.
In addition to being less invasive, the meters will provide timely data that helps us generate more accurate utility bills by reducing human error. We’ll be able to better monitor system performance, control energy theft, provide greater reliability, and pinpoint and respond faster to outages. The system also will make it easier for you to identify ways to save energy and trim your monthly bill.
Since College Station is home to one of the nation’s largest universities, our electric utility handles an extraordinary number of service connects and disconnects. Because of the transient nature of much of our growing population, College Station Utilities processed about 70,000 connection and disconnection work orders last year.
During the peak move-in and move-out times in May and August, what should be a simple service can take several days. We’ll soon be able to handle those 70,000 annual connects and disconnects remotely, which will significantly improve our customer service capabilities and recover about 700,000 miles logged by our service trucks each year, providing substantial savings and environmental benefits.
Privacy and Security
Our top priority has always been providing reliable and safe electric service, which includes safeguarding your privacy and protecting your data. Since we must know how much electricity you use to bill you accurately, that’s all the smart meters measure — not how you use the electricity. Only consumption data is transmitted, nothing more. At the same time, the system’s firewall protects us against external hacking threats.
Moreover, privacy laws require us to protect consumer data. We can’t share that information without your permission, so rest assured it won’t end up in the hands of marketers.
Our most likely communication system would use radio frequency, which produces no microwave radiation. Research shows that standing next to the AMI meter exposes you a fraction of the electromagnetic radiation produced by cell phones or baby monitors.
The Public Utility Commission of Texas recently concluded that “decades of scientific research have not provided any proven or unambiguous biological effects from exposure to low-level radio frequency signals. In reviewing all available material, (PUC) staff found no credible evidence to suggest that smart meters emit harmful amounts of Electromagnetic Field (EMF) radiation.”
For several years, the leadership of our electric utility has prudently set aside adequate funds in CSU’s budget for potential capital projects such as an AMI system. That means the new meters won’t cause an increase in electric rates. The up-front, one-time cost of implementing the AMI system is expected to be about $9.2 million, with annual operations and maintenance costs of about $660,000.
If the meters have a life of 11-12 years, we’ll likely break even on the costs and benefits of the new system. Any shortfall would simply be the cost of doing business and providing better service.
We encourage CSU electric customers to participate in the discussion when an AMI contract is presented to the city council early next year.
David Coleman serves as College Station’s interim assistant city manager after 14 years as the director of water services at College Station Utilities. He also served 21 years as a civil engineer corps officer in the U.S. Navy. Coleman earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Texas A&M in 1981 and a master’s in construction engineering from Stanford.
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