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Evolution of the Smart Meter

Smart meters will play a huge role in American electricity infrastructure. While they alone do not comprise a “smart grid,” the smart meter is an important component. Historically, especially at the residential level, electric meters only measured consumption. So there was no way to differentiate between electricity consumed during peak versus off-peak hours, real time usage statistics and, increasingly, measure electricity sent back to the grid by individual power production (e.g. solar power systems).

In the ongoing effort to upgrade our aging electrical grid and match energy production with consumption, the evolution of the smart meter has taken top priority status for governments and utilities. The digital interconnected smart meters that are starting to make a dent in our electricity infrastructure will serve a plethora of purposes.

The network in which all will be connected will enable electricity measurements at the national and local levels simultaneously.

Utilities and consumers alike will be able to see, in near real time, how much power each building is consuming at any given time. In this way, consumers can better monitor and control their own usage while utilities will be able to more efficiently channel electricity to where it is needed most.

Smart meter vs. time-of-use meter

Often referred to as smart meters, time-of-use meters are nothing new. States like California have been using them for years, inspired by electricity deregulation and a more market-driven approach to its sale and distribution. Yet these meters are not considered smart. Though arguably smarter than their slightly simpler predecessors, they still don’t provide other valuable information and aren’t networked in the way that smart meters will be.

At the same time, the general concept for time-of-use metering is one driving force behind the argument for smart meters - that charging customers based on the time of day and season in which their electricity is consumed will motivate them to better conserve that electricity.

Smart meters and solar energy

Smart meters will also have two-way functions: measuring electricity as it is drawn from and returned to the local grid. This is essential for owners of solar electric systems, who often send power back to the grid during peak daylight hours but draw it from the grid at night and on cloudy days. Smart meters enable the individual power producer and utility to track this two-way flow so that customers may be credited for excess power produced or charged for the difference if more grid power is drawn.

Until recently, a second conventional meter was installed on solar homes and wired to measure electricity returned to the grid. This is all good except for the fact that customers have a hard time monitoring how much power their solar system produces unless they know how to read a meter. Smart meters are more intelligent. For one, they express energy consumed digitally in kilowatt-hours and can be wired to the internet; homeowners can check their consumption in real time from their computer.

A good example comes from the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, whose solar power generation can be observed by anyone with an internet connection. In Sierra Nevada’s case, the output is monitored by SunPower, whose solar panels make up the array in question.

Smart meter deployment

In terms of deployment, smart meters are still very young. New government initiatives are aimed at further advancement of the technology as part of the broader move to develop a smart grid. In the works now are proposals for smart grid pilot projects in which certain communities will act as demonstrations and test cases for smart grid technology.

With increasing electrical demand, the transition to a smart grid will move forward at full speed. With that move will come smart meters, already a buzzword in political rhetoric and discussions that will become common knowledge.

The evolution of the smart meter is in full flow at this moment. If all goes well and renewable energy is to be as influential to our energy future as proponents hope, then expect smart meters to be as commonplace in the near future as conventional meters are today.

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