Smart Electric Meters Can Boost Solar, Wind Energy Use

The real opportunity for advanced metering is to reduce the cost of intermittent resources like wind or solar.

Published: 25-Jan-2008

There are many benefits to being smart.

As policymakers seek to stem the tide of climate change by placing stricter limits on greenhouse gas emissions, utilities across the U.S. are beginning to embrace "smart," or "advanced," electric and natural gas meters as a way of encouraging consumers to cut back on energy use. But aside from fostering energy efficiency, such meters have another, less obvious benefit: They can be used to promote solar power and other renewable energy sources.

Traditional electric meters must be read manually by utility employees who are dispatched to customers' homes and businesses. Consumers only see how much energy they're using when they receive their bills, usually on a monthly basis.

Advanced meters, in contrast, eliminate the need for meter readers. Such meters can measure customers' energy consumption in real time and send that information to the utility, allowing consumers to see how much electricity or gas they're using at different times of the day and adjust their usage accordingly.

Advanced meters have important implications for the renewable energy industry, and particularly for solar power. These meters enable utility customers with rooftop solar panels to see how much energy the panels are producing, how much electricity is being used and what amount is being sent back to the grid.

Eventually, advanced meters may also pave the way for more wind power consumption, although further innovations are needed to reach that point.

"The real opportunity for advanced metering is to reduce the cost of intermittent resources like wind or solar," said Allan Schurr, vice president of strategy and development for International Business Machine Corp.'s (IBM) Global Energy & Utilities Industry practice.

Shining A Light On Solar Power

In November 2006, after receiving approval from state regulators, San Francisco's PG&E Corp. (PCG) began rolling out advanced meters over a five-year period to about 9.5 million electric and gas customers in northern California. PG&E introduced the program in response to the 2000-01 California energy crisis, which was characterized by rolling blackouts and sky-high electricity prices.

By enabling customers to track their electricity and gas use in real time and to respond to price changes by reducing consumption, advanced meters can help avert energy shortages, said Jana Corey, the director of PG&E's advanced metering program. But improving energy efficiency isn't the only advantage of such a program.

Advanced meters will also help to bolster California's ambitious solar energy initiative, Corey said. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has set a goal for the state to generate 3,000 more megawatts of solar-produced electricity by 2017, offering incentives such as rebates for the electricity produced and funds for solar installations.

Advanced metering "is one of things we need for the solar program," Corey said. "We need to meter household usage and also how much energy the solar panel is potential putting back into the grid."

If PG&E can determine how much excess electricity being produced by rooftop solar panels is being sent back to the grid, the utility can reimburse customers accordingly, Corey said. Such rebates or credits could provide consumers with an additional incentive to install solar panels, bringing power solar energy to the electric grid and cutting back on the consumption of fossil fuels.

Theoretically, solar energy customers could bring their net electricity consumption - and their bills - to zero by sending more electricity back to the grid than they consume, said Peter Corsell, president and chief executive officer of GridPoint, a Washington, D.C.-based company that provides a platform for utilities to manage their electricity loads, power storage and generation resources.

"This technology could encourage people to go out and buy solar panels," Corsell said.

Future Opportunities

Advanced metering could ultimately be used to promote other renewable energy resources, including wind, said IBM's Schurr. IBM, in conjunction with the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, recently completed studies that showed advanced metering can lower customers' bills and create significant reductions in energy demand.

Although further technological developments are needed, utilities may eventually be able to use advanced metering to bring more wind power and other intermittent renewable resources to the electric grid. For example, advanced metering could allow utilities to identify a sudden increase in wind power and immediately adjust electric loads on other parts of the grid.

"When the wind starts blowing suddenly, there's an immediate surplus of electricity on the grid, and today the only option utilities have is to go to a natural gas generator and tell them to reduce their output," Schurr said. "Instead of relying on other generators, this technology could immediately drop or increase load size."

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