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ComEd's smart meter deployment schedule is designed to spiral out from the Maywood operating center, capturing geographic and socioeconomic diversity in its path.

Digital grid meets digital divide for ComEd smart meters

by Marci Jacobs
March 06, 2013

Chicago South Siders must wait until their much wealthier neighbors receive cost-efficient digital meters from Chicago’s major power utility Commonwealth Edison.

As part of the $2.6 billion smart grid and systems upgrade passed by the Illinois Legislature in 2011, ComEd agreed to install roughly 4 million “smart meters” throughout its Chicago and Northern Illinois market regions.

According to ComEd’s current installment calendar, Chicago South – where median yearly income runs $32,000 – will receive smart meters after 19 communities within ComEd’s Maywood operating center, where median income is 70 percent higher.

Even after meters are installed, some South Siders my lack the computer access to take advantage of smart meter efficiency programs.

“What are you going to do about people who don’t have computers and Internet access and can’t take advantage of good information?” asked Richard O’Toole, director of customer strategy for ComEd. “It’s a legitimate issue.”

Unlike traditional analog meters, smart meters operate digitally to enable real-time readings, to alert providers of power outages and to supply usage information so customers can conserve energy and save costs at peak times.

And because smart meters are digital, users can access their household power usage data with their home computers, allowing them to participate in energy and cost saving programs.

“For the customer, smart meters will be a great tool because they’ll be able to monitor their energy usage better than ever before,” ComEd spokesman John Schoen said. “There are times of the day that your energy costs almost nothing. So the cost of doing things later at night versus the afternoon can start making differences in your bill.”

South Side residents tend to lack the same level of computer access as other community areas within ComEd’s market region, and one of the key benefits of smart meters is the ability to track and manage usage online.

For this reason, ComEd has scheduled meters to be installed on the north and northwest portion of its Maywood operating center prior to deploying them on the south.

“We want to build out from the Maywood footprint for operational performance reasons,” O’Toole said. Maywood is the site of one of ComEd’s original smart meter pilot programs and extends from O’Hare south to the Eisenhower Expressway.

His team also considered “where are customers likely to participate in alternative electricity pricing programs and have a higher propensity to participate in alternative pricing programs?”

ComEd dug into historical usage data for programs such as its real-time pricing and central air conditioning cycling programs to predict which communities bordering Maywood’s pilot area would be most likely to participate in online monitoring services.

ComEd determined that areas north and west of Maywood had a higher probability of participating.

“That’s where we thought customers would be actively involved in looking at their interval data, going on the web, seeing if they can be better with their behaviors and be more efficient,” O’Toole said. “If we go west and north of the Maywood footprint we hit the operating centers that do have higher propensity in our operating programs.” When that’s done, the South Side will be next in line, he said.

But even then, customers with limited or no computer access may be at a technological disadvantage.

O’Toole recalls a conversation with a Chicago alderman who voiced this concern. “He was like, ‘I’ve got these elderly residents in these complexes and they don’t have computers,’ and he said, ‘You need to put something in the community center of the building so they can come down and use that,’” O’Toole said.

ComEd says it does try to bridge the digital divide with outreach efforts to lower-income residents.

“Part of our educational campaign is to make people aware what they can get from smart meters via computer once they have them,” Schoen said.

“If you want to sign up for peak-time rebates or if you have a smart meter…you actually do need to be able to go to a library or go to a community center and sign up,” said Irma Zaragoza, manager of regulatory affairs at ComEd.

Schoen points out, however, that most people have access to computers in a lot of different places--from smartphones to libraries to other public areas.

Representatives from ComEd and the Citizens Utility Board emphasize that the near- and long- term benefits of smart meters are not limited merely to those customers who have actually received meters. They argue that the greater cost savings accrue from improved efficiency across the overall “smart” electricity grid.

“We anticipate that upgrading our system will make us a more efficient company and those efficiencies we’re expecting to total $250 million a year,” Schoen said. “Those savings are then passed along to the customer.”

ComEd expects smart meters to create an additional $100 million in cost savings by preventing outages, which cause losses in productivity from manufacturing delays to spoiled food.

“In the end we think the cost savings is going to outweigh the costs for customers,” Schoen said.

Smart meters improve ComEd response times and, because they are wirelessly linked, one meter can alert ComEd when a neighboring meter goes out.

“When parts of the system become more efficient it benefits all consumers,” Citizens Utility Board spokesman Jim Chilsen agreed. “If they avoid an outage in an area because they have smart grid improvements, customers across ComEd's territory avoid the extra costs that outage would have sparked.”

Today, if a tree falls on a wire, ComEd doesn’t know anyone is affected until someone calls. And when it takes an inordinately long time to restore power, customers absorb the inefficiency costs. To maximize efficiencies, the smart meter deployment calendar is designed to get the greatest number of meters out in the shortest amount of time possible.

“On a general basis, we’ve always encouraged ComEd and argued that ComEd should go as quickly as possible,” Chilsen said. “We think that the greatest benefit to consumers is getting meters as quickly as possible.”

For this reason, Chicago’s North Side also will have to wait its turn.

Chicago’s North Side presents a more time-intensive challenge for smart meter deployment because it needs approximately twice the number of meters required by ComEd’s South Chicago operating area.

“Converting Chicago North first would take another year than first doing Chicago South,” O’Toole said. “It kind of didn’t give an appealing choice starting with Chicago North.”

Chicago North is currently scheduled to receive smart meters in 2016.

In December, the Illinois Commerce Commission granted ComEd’s request to delay its next round of smart meter installments from 2013 to 2015. Despite this delay, ComEd’s 3.8 million customers saw increased rates on their January ComEd bills to finance the smart grid upgrade. That includes the cost of future smart meter installment, service and maintenance.