Thursday, August 6, 2009

Con Edison Launches Smart Meter Program

Also: Crowley Pushes to Ban Unsightly Meters in Front of Homes

By Conor Greene

Three years after blackouts crippled sections of western Queens, Con Edison has finally launched its smart meter program, which is intended to help head off future incidents. At the same time, a local council member is pushing legislation that would prohibit the installation of utility meters in front of residential buildings.

Con Ed is kicking off its smart meter installation in an 8.3-square-mile swath in the Long Island City area, one of the neighborhoods hit hardest during the 2006 blackout. Since the blackout, Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside) has pushed the company to upgrade its infrastructure with technologies such as the smart grid system, which fully digitizes the power grid by expanding communication between the consumer, the regulator and the power plants.

“The 2006 blackout showed that Con Ed’s infrastructure was totally inadequate for the 21st Century, leaving residents to wonder if the lights will go off whenever the temperature creeps up,” said Gioia, who is running for public advocate after serving on the City Council since 2001. “We need an investment in new technology that can help prevent blackouts and make the system greener and more energy efficient – just like cities like Boulder and Austin have already done.”

The smart meter is part of the larger smart grid system, which utilizes digital communication to better regulate a station’s power output out based on need. The smart grid harnesses the latest in information technology while also helping to green the environment, noted Gioia. “New Yorkers were long due for an upgrade, and it’s right that Con Ed start this program in Long Island City,” he added.

According to a year-long study by the U.S Department of Energy, consumers in the smart meter program saved 10 percent on their power bills, and cut their power use by 15 percent during peak hours. Participants in the study were given electronic meters which got signals from their utility company when power prices were high, along with computer software allowing them to remotely change their power usage.

The blackout of 2006 primarily affected about 175,000 residents of the four neighborhoods included within the Long Island City network. It also caused losses of tens of millions of dollars for business owners, heavy airport delays and brutal conditions due to a heat wave sweeping over the area. Con Ed initially claimed that about 1,600 customers were affected, as the company counted multi-family buildings as one person. It later changed its estimate to reflect actual individuals after coming under heavy criticism.

According to Con Ed, the $6 million smart grid pilot program will test how various technologies support efforts to modernize the electric grid. About 1,500 customers will receive smart meters under the pilot program, and by the end of the month Con Ed will file proposals with the Department of Energy requesting $375 million in stimulus funds to expand the program. The money would help pay for more than 40,000 additional meters.

“New York City will be a model showing how smart grid technologies can work together in dense urban areas,” said Con Ed CEO Kevin Burke. “Smart grids will change the way we manage the grid, and can change the way customers manage their energy usage. Our vision is to identify grid innovations that can be reliable and cost effective, and provide increased flexibility for customers in the way they make energy choices.”

In other news involving electric meters, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) has introduced a City Council resolution calling on the state Public Services Commission to ban the installation of utility meters in front of residential buildings throughout the city.

“The placement of utility meters by corporations such as Con Edison in front of houses has been a serious concern with many residents and community organizations of Queens, and understandably so,” said Crowley. “Given that we have the technology to check utility meters from afar or digitally, it is no longer necessary to mandate the unsightly placement of these boxes in front of residential buildings. Making these utility meters less visible would be a benefit to the aesthetics and character of our neighborhoods.”

The state Public Service Commission has exclusive regulatory authority over gas and electric utility companies. Crowley argued that these meters would not be accepted in front of residential buildings in other boroughs. “Would you see dozens of these unattended and entangled wires and these big rusty meters on the front of a brownstone in Brooklyn or in Manhattan? No. The people of Queens deserve better,” she said.

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