CleanTech: Smart Meters’ Smarts

By Published On: November 9, 2007

Pacific Gas & Electric will soon start testing the latest in so-called “smart meters.” The utility began installing new advanced meters in San Francisco last week, where they are expected to send customer electricity consumption and use patterns data back to PG&E via radio frequency. The electric meters being tested in Fog City, at an estimated cost of $10.2 million, are expected to allow real time remote meter reading in hilly, tree-filled neighborhoods beginning in 2008. Newly installed PG&E meters elsewhere, which are also part of the California Public Utilities Commission-approved $1.7 billion advanced metering program, transmit energy use data back to the utility by the electric wires themselves. To date, PG&E has installed 200,000 advanced electric and gas meters in Bakersfield and Sacramento using the power line, not the radio frequency, technology. The radio frequency being tested in San Francisco is the 900 megahertz band of the electro-magnetic spectrum, the same range used by old cordless phones. However, the meter transmittals will occur in short bursts of irregular patterns to safeguard the information and avoid interfering with phones or other devices, said Paul Moreno, PG&E spokesperson. “If you don’t know the transmitter’s tune, you don’t know where to look,” he explained. The radio frequency is similar to the way that hitting a piano key makes a note–vibrating the piano wire. The new technology, which has been tested by several utilities recently, was created by piano songwriters, Moreno noted. A major challenge for PG&E and other utilities installing smart meters, expected to have a 20-year life, is keeping the hardware and software current and flexible enough to incorporate new technology at a reasonable cost. Like other areas of hi-tech, the technology evolves swiftly (Circuit, Sept. 21, 2007). PG&E was the first utility to launch a smart metering program. Up to 10,000 meters will be installed by the end of this year and tested through spring 2008. If the San Francisco pilot project is successful, the technology is expected to not only allow for real time automated meter reading but also allow PG&E to communicate with computerized home devices, including smart thermostats, high tech rice cookers, and other appliances. At times of high energy use, the temperature on thermostats for air conditioning can be bumped up on hot summer days and appliances shut off to reduce peak demand.

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