Westar Energy's SmartStar program director answers your questions about smart meters being installed in Lawrence

January 19, 2011

This chat has already taken place. Read the transcript below.

Hal Jensen

Hal Jensen, director of Lawrence's SmartStar program for Westar Energy, will answer your question about the smart meters being installed in Lawrence from 11:30 to 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 19.


Hello everyone. This is Christine Metz, a reporter with the Lawrence Journal-World. Last week when I wrote about Westar Energy installing the first smart meters in Lawrence, we received a flood of questions online. So, we thought it would be a good idea to bring in Hal Jensen, director of the SmartStar program, to answer your questions directly.

Hal thanks for coming and get ready to start typing because we’ve received loads of questions today.

Hal Jensen:

Hello, I'm Hal Jensen and am pleased to be here today to answer questions on the SmartStar project. Also with me is Matt Lehrman, part of our SmartStar project team.


Well, let's get started and I want to let readers know that we have quite a few duplicate questions. So, while Hal might not respond to your exact question, hopefully you’ll get the answer you are looking for.


I live in the county outside the city limits. Any way I can get one of the meters as part of this opening round? There are some energy savings ideas in my home that I'd love to try, and the Smart Meter would give me the monitoring tools I need to test them.

Hal Jensen:

Thanks for your interest, the first group of meters will be within the City limits. We will look at that point to expand to some county locations but we don't have where or when determined on that yet.


We have quite a few folks interested in the smart meter installations that have gone poorly in California. Zstoltenberg post is the most detailed. So, I"m posting that one.


When examining the installations of SmartMeters in other locations, failure of the program seems to be a common theme. Individual and class action lawsuits have been filed against utilities in California and Texas, claiming that the meters aren't reliable and have only produced mounting utility bills for customers. In California, the state Public Utilities Commission launched an investigation into the Pacific Gas & Electric Company after consumers in Bakersfield said that their utility bills shot up, at times over 300%, around the same time PG&E installed smart meters there.

PG&E, which supplies much of Northern California with natural gas and electricity, has denied any problems with the meters. But Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, a consumer advocacy group in San Francisco, says his office receives 20 to 30 complaints about smart meters each week, most of them citing utility bills "mysteriously going up."

In April, a state Senate hearing drove PG&E to release records showing that that there were indeed some problems associated with smart meters. What research has Westar done on these failed attempts and consumer backlash? How does Westar justify the invasion of privacy required as part of the government incentives they are receiving? (selling data about our usage habits) How would Westar handle a class action lawsuit in Lawrence?

Hal Jensen:

We at Westar watch the trends and events in other locations on a continual basis and are well aware of the issues in California and Texas. The billing questions have been shown to be a result of changes in rate plans and lack of customer communication vs. meter accuracy. San Jose Mercury News reported in April that 8 of 5.5 million meters were found to be out of meter accuracy limits - there are similar test results from independent auditors in Texas where meters went in at a time of severe winter weather. A lot of the issues seem to revolve around poor customer communication and response as a primary cause. We are working very hard to be out in front of the community and responsive to questions on the project. Interestingly, there are some very successful smart meter projects in California where good communication has been in place, you can check out companies like SDG&E, SCE & SMUD to name a few. In regard to privacy, we will not be selling or sharing customer data on a personal, indentifiable basis.


Thanks for such a detailed answer. I think that response brings us to the next set of questions many readers have. And, that’s how would/could smart meters change how I pay for electricity.


Will Westar ever adjust rates during times of peak demand. Say on July 07 when it is 102 degrees and there is additional demand will rates increase. If so, for how long of periods? by the hour or half hour?

Or will they be like the older demand meters would calculate the peak 30 minute period in a month and home owner was charged per demand unit.

Hal Jensen:

We hope to be offer some voluntary pilot rate programs via the SmartStar project. These types of rate programs would have varying prices, most likely at set times or at times announced ahead of time, that would more closely represent the cost of making electricity at a peak time. They also would offer lower cost (than the standard rate) at off peak times. We know these won't work for everyone but as we look to the future we do hope to be able to offer customers more choice in how they purchase electricity e.g. you sign up for service and you pick what best fits your energy use. In SmartStar, we'll offer some different pilot rate programs, again on a voluntary basis, which will help us figure out what works best and what doesn't work for customer participation.


Thank you, Mr. Jensen for answering our questions. I was wondering whether the online system that indicates my home's energy usage will also indicate the cost per killowatt hour? I am interested in the voluntary rate plans, but want to see the costs of peak usage (not just the usage) first. Thank you for your time.

Hal Jensen:

The online account information that will be available with the smart meter installation will show use, cost and environmental impact on a bill to date, daily and hourly basis. For the rate plan options, you will know the cost ahead of time, they will not be variable real time type pricing. The design is still being determined but we envision a fixed rate time of use schedule (costs x cents from noon to 6pm) for starting this type of program.


What will smart metering mean to me and my bill? Will you change how you bill me when this new technology is installed?

Hal Jensen:

Smart metering is most basically an upgrade to the technology that's in place today. For you, there will be much more detailed information available to you on your energy use and it will be more timely, generally up to date to the day prior; it is not real time information. No one needs to do anything differently then they do today with a smart meter, but it does provide that option if people are interested. It also helps set the foundation from which we can offer more programs and services to customers in the future. Even if you aren't interested in the new services, we will have better information to operate the electric system. The smart meters will help us know where power is out, and back on and other system operations information that will help us improve service quality and reliability.


Mr. Jensen,
Do you have any information that you can share with us about how the installations will proceed from a geographical standpoint? Are you going to work from west to east or north to south, or start in the middle and work outward?

Hal Jensen:

Not at this time. We'll be determining that over the next several weeks and will be providing updates on our web site at westarenergy.com/smartstar. There's a page with information on the installation process there and a map that we'll update as soon as that information is available. At this time, we are almost complete with the pilot neighborhood meter exchange and plan to start the city wide in late May. You can also sign up for RSS feeds from the web page so you can stay updated as information is posted.


Some folks want to know why there is a delay between the pilot program and when the rest of the city receives smart meters. Can you explain what all Westar Energy has to do between now and May?

Hal Jensen:

We spent most of 2010 putting the technology in place to support the smart metering environment and online account information in place. This work still continues at this point and the pilot metering exchange provides us another layer of quality assurance prior to starting the rest. The pilot neighborhood is a little different then the rest in that they do not yet have the new online account page available. They will be the first. We're timing the start of the rest of the meter exchanges to when we'll have the new online information available with the meter installation - generally available by the next day - so that customers can start receiving some immediate benefit from the meter exchange.


I remember getting something in the mail about Westar offering free programmable thermostats to customers. Are these the smart meters or is this something different?

Hal Jensen:

That's a different program available throughout most of the Westar territory called WattSaver. This is a voluntary program and has been well received by customers. Basically, you sign up,get a free programmable thermostat and agree that Westar can cycle your central air conditioner on peak days. There are limits on how many days this can occur and you have opt out options as well (in case you have a house full of guests). Generally, participants see very little change in comfort during cycling.
You can go to westarenergy.com for more information on the program.


Would it be possible in the future to use the smart meter remotely (say from work) to turn on a clothers dryer. Or set automatic timers online to run the dishwasher at 2AM?

Hal Jensen:

Not with the smart meter. There are a number of emerging consumer products that are focusing on these type of capabilities. Some areas to look for include residential home energy management systems and smart appliance development that is happening with the major manufacturers, like GE or Whirlpool. Not promoting but for interest you might also look at companies such as Control4 or the GE Nucleus product suites and there are many others.


Mr. Jensen
What is Westar planning to do for those customers who do not have internet access to be able to access the information that will be available once their smart meter is installed? Is Westar planning to provide any type of device to these customers that would communicate with their smart meter and provide the same type of information as the website will?

Hal Jensen:

We're still sorting through some of that answer. I can tell you that our customer service representatives will be able to give you the information that's on your account and we're exploring ways to get this to non-internet customers in some kind of monthly summary report format. We don't have that one worked completely out yet. You can also access the account from any internet connected location, such as the public library. We do not plan to provide an in home device to deliver the information.


Several people want to know how smart meters will interact with other technology. For instant is it compatible with home energy management systems, solar panels and net metering?

Hal Jensen:

The smart meters we're installing do have the ZigBee SEP 1.0 communication protocol in them. That means they can communicate with compatible in home devices like some of those reference above. There are really no common standards in the space developed yet but a lot of activity. If you look at some of the products mentioned above it may be that at some point in the future you can buy home energy management tools in which you can set preferences based on pricing signals that would be received from a smart meter.

For solar, wind and other the smart meters do support net metering (selling back excess generation). One of the other benefits of smart grid development is that it better supports renewable energy sources.


As smart metering involves data transfer between the end user and the utility, could you discuss information privacy and network security, especially in the context of potential for hacking?

Hal Jensen:

We are very conscious and actively engaged in ensuring data/network privacy and security in the smart grid. We have recently posted a couple blog updates on both on the SmartStar web site. We have a IT security team at Westar that focuses on this full time, we participate in organizations that help keep us on top of emerging issues and we require all vendors we purchase from to fully meet or exceed all standards and other security requirements. This is an area that's never complete of course and we continually upgrade our security measures.

Data Security Blog:

Data Privacy Blog:


We’ve had several people ask questions related to how smart meters and energy conservation in general will impact Westar’s long term revenue. At the heart of their concern is if rates will eventually go up because people choose to use less energy?

Hal Jensen:

Our longer term goal is to make people more aware of energy costs and how their use impacts those costs. Even with conservation electricity use continues to rise because we are adding new uses continually. So part of the answer is in how the growth occurs - on peak requiring new generation sooner or can we provide some tools that can help slow the peak load growth and delay new plant construction. Electric costs will continue to go up in the future. There are processes in place for Westar for cost recovery for expenditures on energy efficiency - this does not include SmartStar at this time. The approach is that over time cost increases for things like the smart grid are less then what new generation would be. Not that new plants won't have to be built, but can we delay and make better utilization of what we have?


Do you have any general advice for how customers might be able to use their new smart meters to save money on their energy bills?

Hal Jensen:

Yes. The smart meters will provide you with an enhanced online account page for your electricity use. On this page you'll be able to see up to date energy use, cost and environmental information based on your account. For efficiency measures, you can take a look at the daily or even hourly information and better see how and when you use electricity. That can help you identify potential areas to save. You can also track from a time that you've implemented some measure to determine if it's having an impact. This information is in a whole house format but it still will provide insight to trends and changes. Additionally, look for other new programs, like the optional rate programs mentioned above, to be offered as we go forward. There may be opportunities to save money through those also. Smart meters provide a foundation from which new programs that can help customers save money can be launched.


Unfortunately, we are out of time. If we didn’t get to your question, I’m sorry. But Hal and Matt said they would be back to answer more as we get closer to May when all homes and businesses in Lawrence will be upgraded to smart meters.

Hal and Matt thanks for taking the time to answer all these questions (and staying long past the one hour time slot). There's a lot of really great information here that will help Lawrence residents navigate through the smart grid process.

And, readers thanks so much for submitting all your questions.

Hal Jensen:

I'll close out by saying thanks to all who joined in today, Great questions and I hope the answers were helpful. We'll continue to provide regular updates to everyone through multiple places and we will be back for another online chat. Thanks again!


Ken Lassman 7 years, 1 month ago

Very cool. I hope that this conversation helped clear up a lot of misconceptions about this program. Living outside the city limits, I'm jealous of y'all and hope that they expand their coverage soon so I can start more closely monitoring my usage and reduce my energy bill the only way possible in coming years: by wasting less of it.

jafs 7 years, 1 month ago

Again, if you want to use less energy, you don't need this program to do so.

Ken Lassman 7 years, 1 month ago

Again, again, though, the reason for having this program is to enable folks to fine tune that energy savings by putting the daily and even hourly energy consumption information into the consumer's hands so that they can play with things.

I really don't think we are disagreeing with the end point here. It's kinda like taking a biofeedback class to lower your blood pressure: having a screen that visually shows you what is going on with your blood pressure in real time is an excellent learning tool, but once you get the hang of it, you don't need to consult that screen every time to lower your blood pressure. But it's good to check in every once in a while when things change...


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