It’s not a butterfly flapping its wings, but a falling tree 15 years ago is about to change the way the electric company tracks power usage in St. Joseph.
In August of 2003, falling trees caused a cascading power outage that left 50 million customers in the dark throughout the Northeast and Canada. Congress responded with a law seeking to modernize the U.S. power grid, from generation all the way to the connection at each individual home or business.
That modernization takes another step forward this year when a contractor goes to every property in St. Joseph to install a “smart meter” that allows two-way communication with Kansas City Power & Light. The device, known as Advanced Metering Infrastructure, will eliminate the need for a meter reader to manually check a customer’s power usage.
“It allows us to identify and locate outages faster,” said Gina Penzig, manager of media relations for KCP&L and Westar. “In the case of folks who still had a manual meter, this means you won’t have a stranger in your yard each month.”
KCP&L started switching St. Joseph customers in January and expects to complete the process in July. KCP&L said customers will benefit from the new technology because they can monitor their energy usage and make changes to save money.
“You can look back at your usage pattern and see what was different,” Penzig said.
In some instances, the digital meters replace electro-mechanical technology that’s been used for decades. The conversion to AMI comes with concerns about privacy and reliability, as well as possible changes to customer billing.
“This is sort of new territory for us in Missouri,” said Geoff Marke, chief economist for the Missouri Office of Public Counsel.
The Office of Public Counsel represents the interests of consumers in utility rate cases. Marke said the new meters could make it easier for KCP&L to shut off service to those who don’t pay bills. In addition, the meters could usher in a new type of billing called time-of-use pricing.
Time-of-use pricing would allow a utility to changes rates based on the time of day, perhaps charging a higher fee for using air conditioning in the afternoon. Marke said that kind of change wouldn’t happen immediately, but it is more of a possibility with the new meters.
“It’s just a meter,” he said. “It’s just collecting how much energy you’re using. It allows you do to some stuff you aren’t doing.”
Data protection is another area of concern with smart meters. KCP&L notes that it already protects customer data in its billing process and takes steps to encrypt information sent on the smart meter, which works like a wireless router on a closed network.
“Security is a question we get a lot,” said Jeremy McNeive, a media relations manager for KCP&KL “Data security is paramount to us. These are very secure.”
But with technology changing fast, the Office of Public Counsel has asked the Missouri Public Service Commission to open a rule-making case on issues surrounding privacy and data security. Marke said the new meters expose a utility to the so-called internet of things, that network of chip-enabled household devices that are vulnerable to back-end hacking.
“There is an increased liability anytime you’re gathering this much data,” Marke said. “We are sort of operating in the Wild West of the internet of things.”
One of the biggest issues to emerge with smart meters involves the accuracy of the devices. This is a sensitive topic in St. Joseph, where some customers questioned KCP&L’s older meter technology after receiving higher-than-normal bills last summer.
The PSC, in a smart grid report from 2014, found that AMI technology was accurate to a range of .5 percent to -1 percent.
“We’ve had very few issues,” McNeive said. “We do make sure they are as accurate as possible when it comes to gauging the energy being used.”
In fact, the devices might be so accurate that a customer could be shocked when receiving a bill, KCP&L officials acknowledge. “There could be a few cases where that could happen,” Penzig said, “if there was a manual meter for 20 or 30 years and the customer hadn’t asked us to check it.”