As smart meter use grows across Kansas, so do options for easy use

For many Kansas electric cooperatives — the energy providers that serve the state’s most rural areas — smart meters are old news.

In Lawrence, the community is just learning about the meters, and some questions are being raised on how they will affect electric bills and customers’ privacy.

Westar Energy is spending $40 million to install 45,000 smart meters in Lawrence this year and establish the backbone of its system’s smart grid.

Eventually customers will be able to go online and see how much electricity they use by the hour. With this knowledge, Westar hopes that Lawrence residents will do a better job of conserving it, which in the future could delay the need for Westar to build more power plants.

Combined, 10 of the state’s 29 electric co-ops have installed almost 72,000 smart meters, about 25 percent of all their meters, said Dave Holthaus of Kansas Electric Cooperatives, the organization that serves all Kansas co-ops. He defines a smart meter as one that provides two-way communication between the home and the electric provider.

Co-ops like being able to access the meters remotely, Holthaus said, and customers like the added information they provide.

“If it makes really good sense on both sides of the meter, chances are it is only going to expand,” he said.

Options expanding

So far, none of the co-ops offers anything nearly as elaborate as what Westar will have online for its Lawrence customers, providing information on hour-by-hour energy usage as soon as the next day.

For many of the co-ops, a customer who wants a read-out of his or her daily usage must call to the co-op to request it.

That’s what customers at Kaw Valley Electric do. The co-op, which has about 1,000 meters in Douglas County, has been replacing mechanical meters with digital ones as its meter readers retire. So far, about half of the co-op’s 4,000 meters are digital.

“Information storage is an issue. We were reading meters once a month. Now it’s every five minutes,” said Kevin Gregg with Kaw Valley Electric. “You come up with quite a bit of information, then it is a matter of how do you store it and what do you do with it?”

As of now, the co-op records energy usage once a day.

The Heartland Rural Electric Cooperative in Girard was the first to put in the early versions of smart meters in 2003. The big draw to smart meters is the ability to read them remotely, an attractive option for co-ops that have service areas that encompass several large counties, Holthaus said. Smart meters also make it easier to detect power failures, and to disconnect and turn on power.

Leavenworth-Jefferson Electric Cooperative, which has a few dozen customers in Douglas County, started installing smart meters six months ago at customers’ request.

“Consumers in general are looking for ways to save on their energy bill and are looking for ways to be helpful with the environment,” said Jennifer Fisher with the co-op. “They wanted more options.”

By 2012, the co-op expects to convert all of its 8,000 meters to smart meters. The cost to do so is $1.5 million.

With the new meters, customers can get a time-of-use rate. At LJEC, the standard rate is 10.81 cents per kilowatt hour every hour of the day seven days a week. This is how customers typically purchase electricity.

However, with the time-of-use rate, customers have to pay a higher rate (17.89 cents per kilowatt hour) when they use electricity from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday. Any other time, customers pay a lower rate of 8.45 cents a kilowatt hour.

The hope is that the higher rate will encourage customers to use less energy during the times of highest demand (usually in the late afternoon) when the co-op has to pay more for the energy it sends through the grid.

Of the 1,600 smart meters the co-op has installed so far, around 100 customers have signed up for time-of-use pricing.

“I think once folks have the chance to look at the benefits of the time of use rate and the kind of money it saves them more people will absolutely get on board,” Fisher said.

After smart meters are installed in Lawrence, Westar plans to offer a similar concept as a pilot program for volunteer customers.

Elsewhere throughout the state, co-ops have offered preferred rates to farmers and industrial users. For a lower rate, the co-op can shut down the farmer’s irrigation system during times of peak demand and the turn it back on when the demand goes down.

Some concerns

Across the country, the deploying of smart meters have been met with some backlash. Concerns have been raised about increased radiation exposure, privacy issues and faulty calculations in how much electricity was actually being used. In California, some cities have placed moratoriums preventing electric companies from installing the devices until more research was done.

But so far the co-ops in Kansas haven’t had to face any of those concerns, Holthaus said. And of the 100 customers who have decided to do time-of-use pricing, Fisher said just one or two have dropped out.

“This is going on nationwide, it really is,” Fisher said. “This goes back to the consumer really wanting more choices.”