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Smart meters making their way to Tarrant County

Smart meters are taking over Tarrant County.

At a rapid pace, Oncor is replacing the old analog meters that read our electricity usage with smart meters, a new technology that links the meter to the electric deliverer through radio airwaves and allows Oncor to read your meter remotely.

But the meters do a lot more than that.

There are two reasons for implementing the new meters, which were switched out in Arlington over the past two weeks and entered Fort Worth neighborhoods on Monday, Oncor spokesman Chris Schein said.

First, Oncor will know immediately when your power is out.

"With the old meters, we had to depend on customers to call us when they had an outage," Schein said. "There was no way for us to know if your power was out. We tried to encourage people to turn on their porch lights after a storm, so our trucks would know whether you had power."

After the major snowstorm last month, Oncor had trouble identifying where the outages were, Schein said.

"Many people didn't call in because they thought their neighbors did," he said. "If you didn't call, we had to assume you had power."

In these days of instant information, it's hard to believe that our electric grid connection with the old electromechanical meters was so outdated that it required a visual from the company or a phone call from the homeowner.

"The technology inside the old meters is the same technology from the 1950s," Schein said. "It's older technology than the rotary phone."

Power outages aside, there is another big reason for switching to the new meters: Homeowners may be able to save some money by better monitoring their home use and switching to a time-of-use electric plan.

Jeffrey Harris of the Alliance to Save Energy in Washington, D.C., says smart meters, which are slowly gaining hold in pockets of the country, are not a guaranteed money saver for homeowners on their energy bills.

"By itself, smart meters don't solve the problems of high energy bills," he said. "But they do give people tools to pay attention to their energy usage."

Smart meters have come under the gun in recent weeks, with some North Texas consumers blaming them for high electric bills this winter. But Schein says it has more to do with a colder-than-normal season.

"A year ago, we were doing 400 meter tests a month when someone thought their bill wasn't right. In the past few weeks, it's been 4,000 a month," Schein said.

Of the meter tests requested, 3 out of 4 were the old, analog meters, 95 percent of which checked out as running accurately, with most of the remaining meters running too slow. Of the smart meters tests, 100 percent tested accurately, Schein said.

More recently, Oncor has been testing the new and old meters side by side and has not found problems with the new ones.

The first way smart meter customers can check on their electric usage is by a Web site launched this week by Oncor, www.smartmetertexas.com. Plug in your new meter number and the ISD number off your electric bill and you can monitor your electric usage in 15-minute increments. It takes at least three weeks from when your get your smart meter to be tied to the Web site. Also, if your electric bill meter number has a 'WE' on the end, it's the old meter number and you will have to call your provider for the new number, or wait for a future bill.

The Web site charts your usage on a flat-line graph similar to a heart monitor that can be tracked in weekly and monthly reports, in English and Spanish. If you turn on your air conditioner or your big-screen television, the line will jump up and show an increase in power usage.

"It gives you immediate feedback so you can make better decisions," Schein said.

Think a space heater is better than running your central heater? This meter will show you that probably isn't so, Schein said. Space heaters are usually more expensive than running your central heater a little higher to stay warm, he said.

Think your power is off when you are out of town? If you've left some of our electronic devises plugged in, you'll see phantom power show up on the readings, Harris said.

"The average house has 10-12 electronic devices plugged in, running at about five watts each," Harris said.

"There are not a lot of excuses for keeping a lot of these things running. Smart meters allow you to be a detective and determine what is on that you don't need."

In addition, Oncor and some electric retail providers are going to start offering in-home meters that can be placed on a countertop and offer real-time energy use by connecting with the smart meter.

Oncor recently received permission from the Public Utility Commission to offer the monitors, and a distribution program is being planned, Schein said. Reliant, an electric provider based in Houston, will be starting a pilot home-monitor program this year, d spokeswoman Pat Hammond said.

In addition, Reliant customers with smart meters can now get a free weekly summary e-mail of their energy usage, showing how much has been used and when, and providing a projection for usage for the rest of the month, Hammond said.

"It enables customers to look at a weekly snapshot of their bills and gives them the ability to budget and understand their usage before the bill arrives -- so there are no surprises," she said. "It gives them greater insight into their energy usage."

But the real prize for electric customers that smart meters offer may be the future of something called "time-of-use" rate plans. Because smart meters can calculate when we use energy and with how much, electric retailers will be able to offer plans that offer different rates at different times of day.

Two time-of-use plans are already available in the North Texas. TXU and Reliant started offering plans last year as the smart meters began being rolled out in Dallas and other areas in deregulated areas of the state.

Neither plan is offering very attractive rates compared with other providers with just one rate, however.

TXU's plan offers a plan with two rates: 8.9 cents per kilowatt-hour during off-peak hours and 24.3 cents in peak hours. Peak hours are defined by the company as May-October, 1-6 p.m., except for three holidays during that season.

"There are thousands on the program now," said John Geary, vice president of innovation for TXU. "Last year, we exceeded our goal for enrollment."

Customers should take a hard look at that higher rate during the summer months, however. Not using an air conditioner during those peak afternoon hours is not an option for most Texans, and the AC is our biggest electric user in the house.

Reliant's time-of-use plan is more complicated, offering three rates: 10.1 cents in off-peak hours, 12.8 cents in standard hours and 14.9 cents in peak hours. The company defines peak hours as 4 to 6 p.m. during its "summer" period, April-October. Simple enough.

But the plan's standard hours are defined as noon-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. during April-October, and then it changes to 6-9 a.m. and 6-9 p.m. for its "winter," defined as November-March. Off-peak hours are also different in winter and summer, no doubt making the plan difficult for some consumers to keep up with through the year.

Those peak rates don't stand up too well against other electric providers at the PUC's comparative Web site, www.powertochoose.com. This week, 34 providers are offering a fixed rate for 8-9 cents per kilowatt without defining peak and nonpeak usage. Many of those offers are for a year or more.

Oncor's Schein said he expects time-of-use rates to drop when more competition for the plans come from electric providers.

"Really good prices for time-of-use would be 4-5 cents in the off-peak and 18-20 cents on peak," Schein says. "When we have a dozen companies offering time-of-use plans, we will have really good pricing."

Another advantage to smart meters is home appliances that can connect with the meters, Schein said. General Electric and other manufacturers are starting to roll out products where the meter will send a signal to the refrigerator to defrost at 3 a.m. instead of during peak use of the grid.

The products will have an override function that will allow homeowners to run driers, dishwashers and other appliances when they need them, instead of when it's more economical.

Teresa M cUsic's column appears on Fridays.

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