Tempers Flare Over Smart Meters

Light Department planning to install meters that can be read remotely.

By Stewart Lytle,
July 12, 2010

smart meter
Electric meters like this one will be replaced next year with smart meters that can be read every 15 minutes by the Municipal Light Department. Credit Stewart Lytle

Tempers flared Wednesday afternoon at the Marblehead Municipal Light Department as board members squared off over a program to install electric meters that can be read remotely and will allow consumers to manage their own electricity usage better.

Board member Wilbur Bassett angrily objected to the smart grid program, saying "I'm not sure the consumers want to be part of this." He told his five fellow board members and General Manager Robert Jolly, Jr., that he had not been kept informed about the plan to install the new meters. "This plan leaves a lot to be desired," Bassett said.

The Light Department has been planning for several years to replace the more than 10,000 electric meters in Marblehead with new smart meters that are monitored continuously through a wireless system. The program will cost about $2.6 million. About half of the cost, a little more than $1.3 million, will be paid for by a highly fought-for grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Bassett said the cost of the program to the town will be about $1.2 million, and given that the voters turned down all 10 override measures last month, he said, "The people don't want to spend the money."

But Jolly told the board the funds are already in the budget and would not cost the town or the water customers any additional funds.

Bassett received some support from other board members, but ran into strong opposition from board Chairman Philip Sweeney, who hit his gavel on the table several times to control the meeting.

"The federal government gave us the money because the program makes sense," Sweeney said.

"I don't like it," Bassett responded.

The meter-replacement program, which is part of a national Department of Energy program to manage electricity usage, will begin in February and take a year to 18 months to install all the new meters, Jolly said. The board plans to open the bids for the purchase of the meters and the installation in July.

As part of the program, the Light Department will conduct a test of 400 customers in time-of-day pricing. In the test, there will be "a carrot and a stick," Jolly said. The rates will be discounted for electricity used in non-peak times and the rates will be higher during peak-use times. With smart meters, individual consumers can monitor their usage on a web site.

The department and its consultants will be analyzing "what it will take for consumers to change their behavior," Jolly said.

The general manager said Marblehead residents "are pretty educated" about electricity use. The department has had a "Stop Peaking" program in town since the 1970s, he said.

Peak usage times are early morning and early evening.

The meters will provide data to the department every 15 minutes, as compared to every 30 days now, Jolly said.

"This program takes us to the next level," Jolly said after the meeting. "It is cutting edge, a state of the art program."

Marblehead is one of only two municipality-owned electricity providers to win a grant for the smart meter program. Danvers Electric received $8.5 million, and DOE awarded a total of $35.6 million in smart-grid grants in Massachusetts. In a highly competitive program, DOE awarded $3.4 billion in federal stimulus money to 100 different utilities nationwide. Utilities across the country applied for a total of $9 billion in grants for smart meters.

Jolly said Marblehead won because "we wrote a good application."

He told the board the rates would go down for Marblehead electric users because the smart meters would reduce the costs of operations, but said it is too early to estimate how much the price of electricity might go down.

The department will save money by not having to dispatch trucks to check individual meters for outages or to turn the power on and off, he said. For every dollar the department spends on this project, it will see a return of $1.36, the manager said.

After a 20-minute acrimonious debate among the board members, they agreed to table the discussion of the smart meters until the next board meeting. Jolly said he would provide all board members with copies of the smart meter plan, implementation schedule, the cost-benefit analysis and the DOE application.