CUC smart meters: Savings, but also questions

A Caribbean Utilities Company program to replace standard electricity meters with new “smart meters” is set to finish late this year, but it has generated questions about the safety and security of the equipment.  

CUC says the installation of more than 27,500 meters in every residential and commercial premise in Grand Cayman will cost $5 million. The expense will not be charged back to consumers, the company says, and the system will enable efficient monitoring and use of electric power. 

“Smart meters record usage information every 15 minutes and some system activities such as power outages,” said a company spokesperson.  

“This information is communicated wirelessly back to data collectors, which re-transmit this information back to the systems at the CUC headquarters. 

“Customers can use this information to analyze their usage patterns and as a result, identify opportunities to save energy. These meters allow CUC to read more efficiently for billing and can also remotely provision and disconnect service without having to deploy field crews,” she said. 

The system also enables advance billing based not on estimates of projected use, but on recorded data. 

Still, questions remain. In an analysis earlier this year, Japanese daily Yomiuro Shimbun studied nationwide projects by 10 public utilities to install as many as 10 million smart meters by the end of this year, completing the 78-million unit project by 2024. 

“One point that must be addressed regarding the installations is how to prevent data from being leaked, because smart meters have information-communication functionality,” the newspaper report said, citing “leakage of personal information, tampering with consumption-volume data and the risk of large-scale blackouts due to cyber-attacks.” 

“The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry,” the paper said, would debate the subject, and “list potential risks in relation to these points by the end of summer this year.” 

In the U.K., an 11 billion pound (US$16.35 billion) project to install 53 million smart meters in 30 million homes and businesses will start at the end of this year and finish in 2020. Consumer rights website addresses three complaints: costs, security and health, in terms of radio frequencies and electromagnetic radiation. 

In England, Scotland and Wales, the cost of the equipment and installation will be passed to consumers. CUC, however, says its $5 million investment will not be charged to clients. 

“No additional charge will be applied to customers’ bills for this program,” said the spokesperson. “CUC is making this investment in its advanced metering infrastructure with the approval of the [Electricity Regulatory Authority].” 

Possible security arise, even though the meters do not employ Internet protocols to move information. The wireless transfers are still electronic. 

“Our system does not use the Internet at all. It is a completely isolated network, owned and operated solely by CUC,” said the spokesperson, although conceding that an individual might try to intercept consumption and billing data – or simply wreck havoc. 

“CUC recognizes this risk and has mitigating systems in place,” she said without elaborating. 

While radiation hazards do not appear significant, other safety issues have plagued the meters, particularly those built by Sensus, the North Carolina-based manufacturer supplying many of CUC’s smart meters. 

In Ontario, for example, the provincial fire marshal has linked 13 fires to the Sensus IconA Generation3.2 smart meters, with the result that the Electrical Safety Authority has ordered the removal by March 31 of 5,400 of Ontario’s 4.8 million meters. 

The Ontario concerns came in the wake of eight unexplained fires in Saskatchewan last summer that were linked to Sensus IConA Genaration3.3 meters. In that case, authorities removed 105,000 units. 

Last July, in the wake of three small fires, Portland General Electric in Oregon said it would replace by October 70,000 Sensus 2S Gen3 RD smart meters, installed largely in rental units. 

The company said it had installed 785,000 smart meters since 2008 and had experienced no problems with most. 

In August 2012, the Philadelphia Electric Company suspended its $650 million 1.6 million-unit smart meter program after 29 incidents in which the components overheated and caught fire. While no injuries were reported, two homes were seriously damaged when the fires spread beyond the meters. 

Following a series of tests, PECO replaced 186,000 Sensus meters with Swiss-made units, completing the trade by the end of 2012. 

At the time, PECO and representatives of the three biggest smart-meter manufacturers said the overheating was most likely caused by external problems in the panels mounted on walls into which the meter is plugged, not by problems in the devices. 

Similar incidents have been reported in Michigan, Florida, Nevada and both White City and Regina, Saskatchewan. 

In Raleigh, North Carolina, Sensus director of corporate communications Linda Palmer declined to comment, but referred inquiries to an August press release on the company’s website. 

Utility site inspections and lab testing, “point to contributing external factors such as water intrusion due to holes in meter boxes, hot socket conditions in the meter box and over voltage in the distribution system,” the release says, referring to iConA Generation 3 2S meters. 

“Safety is our number one priority and all Sensus meters go through rigorous testing and meet or exceed industry safety standards,” Sensus President Randy Bays said. “I have been personally involved with our customers and Sensus quality and engineering teams as we work to collect fact-based and data-driven information on these specific incidents.” 

Sensus’s own studies of seven incidents pointed to “long-standing industry issues: one was caused by an issue with a meter base attached to a home, three were caused by utility overvoltage, two were caused by water intrusion through the meter base, and one remains under investigation,” the release said. 

Meanwhile, tests by Underwriters Laboratory – an Illinois-based independent safety-testing organization with offices in more than 46 countries – said Sensus meters met all safety standards, persuading Canada’s Medicine Hat utility, for example, to continue installing Sensus IconA Gen3 electric meters. 

In December, Underwriters Laboratory said Sensus meters thought likely to be behind the eight unexplained August 2014 Saskatchewan fires had passed all tests for resistance to flame, water, temperature swings, power surges and other extreme conditions. 

At the same time, Sensus isn’t the only smart-meter manufacturer facing fire issues. Canadian utility BC Hydro, which uses Itron meters, came under pressure after several fires in 2012. 

California’s Pacific Gas & Electric, which uses General Electric and Swiss-made Landis+Gyr meters, faced an electrical short in a Santa Rosa shopping mall, causing three meters to melt down, although the meters themselves were later found not to be at fault. 

Florida’s FPL, which uses General Electric meters, reported smart-meter fires caused by electrical malfunctions. 

Locally, CUC uses Sensus iConA meters, models 1S, 2S and 12S, and occasionally iConAPX models 16S and 9S. The company also uses General Electric equipment, the spokesperson said.  

“The different meters “are used to meter different types of services required by customers,” she said. 

She acknowledged the historical complaints about the meters, and said CUC had faced similar problems, but said they had been few and quickly addressed. 

“Not unlike many other utilities, CUC has experienced failures of a small number of meters,” she told the Cayman Compass. “In most cases, investigations indicated that the meters were damaged due to heat building up in loose connections on the customer’s meter base or water intrusion into the meter base causing the electronics in the meter to short circuit. 

“Sensus has upgraded their meters to resolve these issues,” she said. 

To date, no one has declined to participate in the smart meter program, she said.  

“CUC hasn’t had any such requests; on the contrary, customers are becoming aware of the benefits to them and CUC has received requests for exchanges to be made sooner,” the spokesperson said. 

Approximately 12,500 meters had been installed throughout Grand Cayman’s five districts, without any complaints or adverse reports.  

Chairman of the Cayman Renewable Energy Association, James Whittaker, founder of the Greentech Group, points out that smart meters themselves are not particularly innovative, but need to be coupled with a broader program of energy conservation and even use of renewables. 

“With the ability to gather data on a property’s energy usage in real time, in theory the power company can more accurately make decisions to be more efficient, and that should cut down on costs to them and, at least in theory, to the consumer,” he said. 

Smart meters, Mr. Whittaker said, “could definitely be a good thing if used to their maximum potential and for the right reasons. Are we going to build a smarter grid and adopt cleaner and more stable sources of clean energy for the long-term benefit of the country and our consumers? Are we going to use these technologies to reduce their [CUC] costs and then pass those savings into the consumers? 

“Whether or not this is a good thing comes down to how effectively it’s used as a tool to benefit consumers and the country as a whole, versus improving the internal efficiencies and/or profits of the power company.” 

Among the benefits smart meters can offer is the ability to lower consumer costs through “time-of-use” programs, encouraging users, for example, to operate washing machines at 3 a.m. rather than during peak afternoon and early evening hours. 

CUC did not offer time-of-use, or TOU options, the spokesperson said, although she left the door open for the future: “CUC does not offer time of use rates at this time. By changing its meters to the smart meter type, CUC will be able to consider the introduction of TOU rates in the future.”