CPS Energy Rolling Out Smart Meters

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A CPS Energy employee checks a meter. Photo courtesy of CPS Energy.

A CPS Energy employee checks a meter. Photo courtesy of CPS Energy.

CPS Energy will begin deploying installation crews Monday to replace analog electric meters with the first of what eventually will be 740,000 smart meters in San Antonio. Customers will receive notices one month in advance of the meter work.

The $290 million Smart Grid Initiative aims to save the customer and the utility energy and money.  Installing smart meters throughout the CPS Energy service territory will take four years with completion set for 2018.

Smart meter installation map courtesy of CPS Energy.

Smart meter installation map courtesy of CPS Energy. Click to enlarge

A pilot program that placed smart meters in 40,000 homes in 2013 saved CPS Energy nearly $1 million in maintenance and operational costs associated with contract workers reading analog meters, according to utility officials.

A group of 25 residents from Alamo Heights who received meter replacement notices in the mail attended an Energy Savings and Tech Tours meeting held at the McNay Art Museum last week. The smart meters will make it easier for customers to track their own energy consumption, which should lead to reduced bills as people become smarter about managing that consumption, CPS spokesman John Moreno told the group. 

Instead of being surprised at the end of the month with a huge electricity bill, customers will be able to review daily energy consumption data and charges via their online accounts. Usage rate is collected every 15 minutes. Customers will be able to see the impact that a 100-degree day has on a system where the thermostat is set to keep a home at 78 degrees all day – an incentive to adjust it upwards to 85 degrees before leaving for work.

Used in conjunction with CPS Energy’s free Home Manager – which allows for electronic control over your air conditioner, electric water heater and pool pump settings – and various appliance rebate programs, customers who take advantage of the new energy management tools will reduce their electricity use and their monthly utility bills.

Smart meters also allow for the possibility of introducing other advanced money-saving techniques. Moreno described a possible opt-in program that would allow customers to see when electricity is the least costly and opt to use more electricity during off-peak times. Demand on the grid changes hourly, and CPS Energy meets rising demand by firing up coal plants or purchasing power on the open market. As demand peaks, the cost per kWh increases, and more stress is put on the grid – sometimes causing rolling outages.

CPS Energy's Justin Fisher explains how the free Home Manager program works to a curious customer. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

CPS Energy’s Daniel Fisher explains how the free Home Manager program works to a curious customer. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“For instance, let’s say from 3-7 p.m. electricity is more expensive because that’s during peak (demand),” Moreno said.  “If you could see that the price (per kWh) would go down from 7-12 p.m., you could wait to do your laundry until it’s cheaper.”

Customers can currently opt-in to CPS Energy’s Demand Response/Peak Energy Saver program, which provides some financial incentives and discounts to allow the utility to turn up and down thermostats according to peak hours or “conservation events.”

The smart meters transmit outage alerts in real-time to CPS Energy, while analog meters cannot send information. Right now CPS Energy often learns of an outage only when a customer notifies the utility by telephone.  A smart meter automatically generates a “last gasp message” to a control center. When power goes out, a red dot will start to blink and a response crew will be deployed to investigate.

“This gives us the opportunity to get (an outage) taken care of before (the customer) even knows about it,” Moreno said.

Landis + Gyr smart meters. Photo courtesy of CPS Energy.

Landis + Gyr smart meters. Photo courtesy of CPS Energy.

The technology also allows for remote activation and disconnection of accounts. Rather than having a crew come out to manually activate electricity in a new home or apartment or deactivate when you move, it will be as easy as flipping a switch remotely.

From an operation’s standpoint, CPS Energy will save millions in expenses relating to staffing and fleet costs. Fewer on-site visits means a reduction in vehicles on the road – reducing carbon emissions and vehicle maintenance. Current meter readers will transition into other positions, Moreno said, and trained in quality assurance and how to read new meters in the event of a malfunction.

Based on data gathered in other cities that have undergone the smart meter transition, CPS Energy officials expect one percent or less of customers to opt-out of the program. Moreno shakes his head reluctantly, “It’s their choice, but they have to pay for it.”

Customers elsewhere have opted out for reasons ranging from suspicions that the meters somehow are devices for the government to spy on citizens, to fears driven by Internet disinformation that the meters cause house fires.

For those who do choose to opt out, there is a one-time fee is to install an Offsite Meter Read meter, and a $20 reading fee each time CPS Energy has to dispatch a meter reader to the residence. Low income customers can apply for a reduced rate.

CPS energy opt out smart meter fee graph

During last week’s informational meeting at the McNay, customers questioned the affect smart meters would have on their monthly bill and their daily lives. Smart meters do not require any customer maintenance.  There are no fees associated with the installation of the smart meters, but the 2014 rate increase does cover the program’s costs.

“I was worried about all the technology at first,” said Peggy Foerster, an Alamo Heights resident. She attended the meeting with her husband, Paul, to learn more. They spent several minutes talking to Thomas Malek of Silver Spring Networks, the contractor working with  CPS Energy to oversee the smart grid network and meter implementation. Representatives from Corix, the installation contractor, also were on hand.

“Seems easy to me, as long as I don’t have to install it,” Peggy said, laughing.

Some have expressed concerns about potential health effects and security issues. Smart meters use radio frequencies just like cell phones, televisions, and wireless Internet.  The frequencies are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission and have been deemed safe in dozens of medical studies, including a 2014 report by the Electric Power Research Institute commissioned by CPS Energy and a 2011 report by the California Council on Science and Technology.

Smart meters are assigned their own frequency by the FCC and therefore should not interfere with other devices.

“There are too many hackers,” said one attendee who did not want to be identified. “It’s being done too fast, too soon.”

The CPS Energy network itself is a secure one, so information transmitted from smart meter to one of several relay hubs located around the city and then to CPS Energy is safe, Marek said. Each device has a physical barrier, sends encrypted data, and ceases to function if someone tampers with it. Even if the network was somehow hacked, account numbers are not connected with names and addresses until the bill is processed at CPS Energy. Addresses are only used in the event of an outage to call maintenance teams into action.

“No personal information is being transmitted,” Marek said. “Just an ID number and usage data every 15 minutes.”

Some citizens expressed concern that too much information is being gathered – that a digital network opens up the grid to attack and abuse. National and local anti-smart meter groups – yes, they exist – have suggested, without any evidence to support the conspiracy theories, that information about customer lifestyles and habits can be gleaned from the data.

“CPS Energy does not participate in selling customer information to third parties,” said Moreno. While account information is kept private, the federal government has subpoenaed utility records just as it has accessed individual bank records when criminal activity is suspected.

Local travel agent John Joseph is another customer seriously considering opting out of the program. Joseph has four properties in Alamo Heights and a “healthy skepticism” about the program, he said.

Some of his homes are historical and have old wiring, so he’s concerned about the electrical compatibility of the new technology and the risk of fire. He pointed to fires in Canada, Philadelphia, Oregon and other states that resulted in property damage and the recall of hundreds of thousands of meters.

“I don’t have a lot of faith in the City Public Service,” Joseph said, adding that he feels CPS Energy has a bias toward making a profit. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

But investigations into these fires have shown that it’s typically not the smart meter that catches fire. A malfunction in a certain model of Sensus smart meters installed between 2010-2012 caused several fires in Portland. Canadian utilities had similar problems this summer. More commonly, fires start due to faulty installation.

“Smart meters, just like traditional analog meters, cannot ignite,” Moreno said. Rather, fires start due to an “improper socket connection.” That is, the smart meter isn’t completely or properly connected to the base socket on the outside of residences, creating heat, an electrical arc, and in some cases, a fire.

CPS spokesman John Moreno explains how a smart meter connects to a base. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

CPS spokesman John Moreno explains how a smart meter connects to a base. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

About 10 percent of each batch of Sweden-based Landis+Gyr smart meters are tested by CPS Energy. If any are found to be faulty, the entire batch is rejected. So far, so good.

“Landis+Gyr is unaware of any case where our meter was the source of a fire,” stated Landis+Gyr spokesperson Stan March in an email. “Industry studies point to poor installation processes as a key factor in hot socket cases.”

Millions of smart meters have been installed by Silver Spring and Cori, Moreno said. “They have an excellent record … None of their installations have resulted in fires.”

“We’re reaping the benefit of not being first,” CPS Energy spokesperson Tracy Hamilton said.

Notifications will be mailed to residents about one month before installation and reminder phone calls will remind  residents of the meter exchange one week in advance.

Several public meetings have been held within each of the installation zones in phase one of the roll out (see map) to inform CPS Energy customers about the new electricity meters as well as 360,000 gas meters and how they work with the public utility’s Smart Grid Initiative.

*Featured/top image: A CPS Energy employee checks an electricity meter. Photo courtesy of CPS Energy.

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19 thoughts on “CPS Energy Rolling Out Smart Meters

  1. This has been marketed very well by CPS and I get the need to personally and collectively conserve whenever possible. What I don’t understand is how nobody seems to discuss that this relieves you of your ability to control your own home should CPS choose to control it. How is that missed? Am I the only one that thinks giving a company more control over my living conditions is a problem? Do you really think the “Free” Home Manager is being given away because it’s a good thing for you?

    • hi Chris,

      I work for CPS Energy. The smart meter has no ability to control your power use; it collects use data and sends it to CPS Energy. It’s not connected to anything inside your home.

      It’s separate from Home Manager, which is a home area network connecting pool pump, a/c and water heater. Home Manager allows the customer to remotely program those devices, and it also allows CPS Energy to adjust the thermostat upwards 3 degrees for 10-15 minutes each hour during a conservation event, when demand on the grid is highest.

      It’s a voluntary program, and of course it’s not for everyone. Customers sign up because they want the ability to program their devices to save money, and because they don’t mind, in exchange, helping CPS Energy manage peak load.

      Hope that helps to clarify.

        • Tracy, are you saying here on-the-record that CPS’s so-called smart meters do not harvest data from the “smart” appliances in the home?

    • Joy, people in other Texas and U. S. cities with so-called “SmartMeters” report utility bills coincidentally increased up to 40%.

  2. Hi Iris, thanks for a very informative article on the smart meters, and it was good to meet you in person at the CPS meeting to know whom I’m talking to!

    Your comment that “fears driven by Internet disinformation that the meters cause house fires” was troubling. Disinformation is worse than misinformation, which can be accidental, because it means false information that is given to people in order to make them believe something or to hide the truth. I attended the meeting because of my concern for fire, based on reports in July that Saskatchewan and Portland Oregon have recalled 175,000 smart meters because of fires. In February, an apartment fire in Pennsylvania was caused by a Landis Gyr meter. Videos are available on the internet. Actual fact, not Internet disinformation, even though the Landis Gyr rep at the meeting denied it. I wish CPS would have spoken openly about the fire concerns, rather than post the article on their website that fires and explosions were a myth. I live in an older home in the Cottage District with wood siding, and have just cause for concern based on what I have read.

  3. Current analog meters are a dated technology that don’t accurately capture the true costs of energy production and therefore can’t send the appropriate price signals to consumers. The result is that CPS E is subsidizing consumption during hours when it costs them a lot more to provide energy. While it is true that smart meters won’t guarantee lower bills, they arm consumers with information so they can make better choices about how much energy they use and when.

    Installation of smart meters is in keeping with global trends in the utility industry and it is just a matter of time before you will need to have these installed for homes to be compatible with many appliances, control devices, and even cars. Real-time consumption data is becoming the norm in the home automation and energy efficiency sectors, with the ultimate goal of giving people more control over how their homes operate. This is all predicated on having regular access to communications technology that will allow you to track energy data so it definitely has the potential to exclude certain segments of the population from enjoying the full benefits of this transition.

    Noticeably absent from this conversation is mention of real-time pricing or other billing strategies to disincentive consumption during peak hours. Our current billing system is relatively primitive and it would need to be adjusted to fully realize the potential of smart meters. This would make for an interesting follow-up story so I hope the RR is able to look into it.

      • John – My point is mainly that the result of tracking real-time cost and consumption data would allow CPS E to charge a cost for energy that is more in line with what it costs them to produce it. When the grid is taxed out and they are near their maximum generating capacity the cost of production is higher so it probably doesn’t make sense to charge a flat rate across the board. How people respond to this is their choice and could mean drying clothes at different time, for example. I don’t know if or when this type of billing might be implemented but wouldn’t be surprised to see this happen as a result of the smart meter rollout.

  4. The internet is filled with stories from websites specifically opposed to smart meters. If you google smart meter accuracy you will see what I mean. Forbes is credible to me, and they have an article that explains the increase, and Landis + Gyr is the meter. http://www.forbes.com/sites/williampentland/2011/05/03/not-so-smart-meters-overbilling-californians/ “The utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, admitted yesterday that about 1,600 so-called “smart meters” had charged customers for phantom power. The meters, manufactured by Landis+Gyr, malfunctioned when they get too hot.”
    The state of Maryland is now having concerns, according to CBS:
    http://baltimore.cbslocal.com/2014/02/28/new-fee-forces-bge-customers-who-dont-want-smart-meters-to-pay/ “Installation of the new Smart Meters is already underway, but tens of thousands of Marylanders say they don’t want them.”
    marylandsmartmeterawareness.org has later info.
    There are two national sites, specifically http://stopsmartmeters.org/ and
    http://emfsafetynetwork.org/ that focus on problems, but I don’t know if RR considers them credible.
    Are problems happening everywhere? No. Will problems happen here? We won’t know until the meters are installed.

  5. If a customer elects to opt out of having the meter change, they are required to pay $175.00 plus $20/month extra forever? How does a public utility get away with this sort of economic coercion/extortion?

    • Catherine, part of the problem is that CPS Energy is not regulated at all by the Texas Public Utility Commission because it is owned by the city of San Antonio. But CoSA has no real interest in reigning in the bonus-lovers at CPS because the city derives about 30% of its general revenue every year directly from CPS.

      Most of the rest of Texas has a deregulated electricity market, but we are stuck with the monopoly that does and charged what it wants. Dallas and Houston have over 100 different sources for people to choose from.

  6. It would help if CPS provided us with the legal mandate they have to force us to accept a so called smart meter.
    It is ridiculous for them to say our privacy will not be compromised. These are digital signals that will be connected to ‘smart appliances’.
    It is absurd to deny that smart meters are not causing fires when there is so much evidence to the contrary.
    I can’t help notice that no one wants to investigate a claim against smart meters but many want to repeat the PR of CPS when there is so much opposing information on the internet. Having said that, I am aware that all information on the internet must be checked. I thought that is what investigative reporters are paid to do. Most taxpayers and citizens of San Antonio, the owners of the only electric company in town, do not have the time to pursue this.

  7. No one is talking about the very real threat of utility-wide hacking. If the virtual disconnect switch is on a network, then a hacker or virus could shut the whole city down. The nature of networks is that they are two way. What happens when a hacker group shuts down the grid when it is 102 and grandmas start dropping like flys? I want assurances that the network is physically isolated from the Internet at CPS, not the nodes.

  8. Jason, you are so correct. That is because CPS public relations is quashing any suggestion of vulnerability. The Utility also tells you they are not collecting data. True because PR leaves off ‘at this time’. The potential to collect data is there. If my Wi FI can be hacked, so can the Smart Grid. A hacker can shut down the grid now. Smart Meters will make it so much easier!

    • Henri, you’re absolutely correct.

      Google the video CBS did about the so-called “smart” grid with the former Director of the CIA, James Woolsey. Thalia Assuras was the reporter. Basically, Woolsey says a high school kid in Shanghai or Moscow with about $500 worth of equipment could bring down the entire US “smart” grid.

      How “smart” is this?

  9. Please read, & see the documentary about the so-called ‘smart’ grid here :
    Former CIA director, James Woolsey:
    ‘they’re constructing what they call a smart grid, to make it easier to call our homes on our cell phone and turn down our air conditioning. But that may mean that a hacker in Shanghai with his cell phone can do the same thing or worse. And a so-called smart grid that is as vulnerable as what we’ve got is not smart at all. It’s a really, really stupid grid.’

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