By the end of the year, nearly all of Westar Energy’s 39,000 Lawrence residential customers will have smart meters.
Since October, the electric utility has been installing the meters in homes throughout Lawrence. The meters are part of a $40 million SmartStar project, half of which is being covered by federal stimulus dollars.
“Overall, it’s gone very well. The Lawrence community has been great to work with. We have been getting an awful lot of positive feedback on the availability of information,” said Hal Jensen, Westar’s SmartStar director.
Of the 36,000 meters installed so far, 5,400 customers have accessed the online information that comes with the smart meters. Jensen expects that number to grow with 150 to 200 people logging online every day.
“Not everyone gets online the day after the meter is exchanged,” Jensen said. “We will do more in the form of customer communications.”
The online data has monthly billing information and breaks down energy usage in 15-minute increments. The data makes it easy to see which days have spikes in energy usage (mainly on the weekends and holidays) and at what time of day energy is used the most (typically between 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.).
Customers also can set up text and email alerts for when the bills are over a certain amount or when there are spikes in energy usage.
Once the residential meters are installed, Westar will begin working on meters for businesses. The electric utility also will continue to work with customers who have meters that are hard to access, such as those in yards with dogs or closed in by locked gates. In those instances, customers have to set up appointments for the meters to be switched.
Along with providing more information to customers, the smart meters will benefit Westar operations. The company will no longer have to send trucks to digitally read meters and it doesn’t have to be on site when an account transfers names. That will make a significant difference on Aug. 1, when many apartments in Lawrence switch tenants.
Next spring, Westar hopes to launch a voluntary program that will allow customers to be billed at different rates based on peak demand. For instance, energy would be at its most expensive during hours when it’s needed most, such as late afternoon on a 100-degree day in July.
The program, which has to be approved by the Kansas Corporation Commission, would be available to 1,000 participants and is not specific to Lawrence.
“We have had quite a bit of interest in that type of rate availability and a lot of interest in Lawrence,” Jensen said.
In other places around the country, customers have questioned the accuracy of smart meter readings. Jensen said Westar hasn’t found any technical problems with the accuracy of the meters.
“That’s not to say there haven’t been any bill inquiries. There always are, smart meter or not, there are always a few changes in energy use for one reason or another,” Jensen said “But there is nothing that is out of the ordinary.”
A small percentage of the residents could see a slight increase in their bill because the smart meters are more accurate than the slow, old mechanical meters they are replacing. However Jensen said most of the city’s residents have been on digital meters for more than a decade.
A few Lawrence residents are refusing to make the switch to smart meters. In that case, Westar is meeting with them personally to convince them otherwise.
“Those are by far the exception,” Jensen said. “They are less than one-tenth of 1 percent.”