Go Green With Smart Electricity Meters

screenshot of Google search for smart electricity meter

A good summary of the impacts of climate change last year, and what is being done to adapt to and mitigate these impacts, can be found in a New Year publication of Mother Jones. The two introductory paragraphs are quoted below:

Last year, climate change came into sharp relief for much of the world: The planet experienced its hottest 12-month period in 125,000 years. Flooding events inundated communities from California to East Africa to India. A heat wave in South America caused temperatures to spike above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of winter, and a heat dome across much of the southern United States spurred a 31-day streak in Phoenix of 110 degree-plus temperatures. The formation of an El Niño, the natural phenomenon that raises temperatures globally, intensified extreme weather already strengthened by climate change. The US alone counted 25 billion-dollar weather disasters in 2023—more than any other year.

Yet this devastation was met by some of the largest gains in climate action to date. World leaders agreed for the first time to “transition away” from oil and gas at the annual United Nations climate summit, hosted last month by the United Arab Emirates. Funds and incentives from President Joe Biden’s signature climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act, started to roll out to companies and municipalities. Electric vehicle sales skyrocketed, thousands of young people signed up for the first-ever American Climate Corps, and companies agreed to pay billions of dollars to remove harmful chemicals called PFAS from drinking water supplies.

Not surprisingly, a section in the Mother Jones publication is devoted to energy and it starts with the following achievement:

6.  A deluge of new household electrification and efficiency rebates.

When the Inflation Reduction Act passed in 2022, some decarbonization incentives were quickly accessible—such as tax credits for solar and heat pump installation—but others have taken longer to kick in. The wait, however, is almost over, and 2024 is set to see a slew of new, or expanded, opportunities come online.

However, 2024 is a presidential election year and the dominant Republican candidate is ex-President Donald Trump. Few of us can forget 2016, when he won the presidency and negated almost all the actions that had been taken to mitigate and adapt to climate change. We cannot sustain a repeat of this whiplash.

Almost every receipt or ad that I am getting now is decorated with a fancy-colored font that is calling on me to “go green.” What the company means by the message is often a mystery to me. In the next series of blogs, I will repeat the call, specifying in some detail what actions we could take that would actually help. While these institutions are trying to raise awareness of environmental issues with vague messages, I want to communicate specific steps that will increase bottom-up pressure on government and corporations to take concrete steps in a cost-effective way. This blog will focus on electricity meters.

The opening image is a screenshot of a Google image search for electricity meters. They come in all shapes and forms. As can be seen in the figure, there is a major effort to make the electricity meter “smart.” What are smart meters?

The term smart meter often refers to an electricity meter, but it also may mean a device measuring natural gas, water or district heating consumption.[citation needed] More generally, a smart meter is an electronic device that records information such as consumption of electric energy, voltage levels, current, and power factor. Smart meters communicate the information to the consumer for greater clarity of consumption behavior, and electricity suppliers for system monitoring and customer billing. Smart meters typically record energy near real-time, and report regularly, short intervals throughout the day.[1] Smart meters enable two-way communication between the meter and the central system. Smart meters may be part of a smart grid, but do not themselves constitute a smart grid.[2]

Smart grids are essential to electricity grids that deliver sustainable energy. The sun and wind provide the energy, but it must be available as needed rather than restricted to the moment when it is collected. Smart meters are designed to synchronize the energy sources with energy users:

smart grid enables your business to communicate with the UK energy system. This reduces waste and balances resources, supporting renewable energy integration and new green technologies. One of the easiest ways to implement a flexible grid is to install smart meters. They enable businesses and energy providers to establish how much energy is required, where it’s needed and when. Subsequently, the grid can be properly balanced. Meaning we don’t need to switch on more carbon intensive generation when supply gets low or demand gets high. And, as a result, you can save money, or even make a profit by generating and selling your own electricity.

The smart meter-mediated feedback between the utility and the user can extend two-way communication capabilities between the user and the electric company that provides the electricity. The electric company can provide the user with the composition of the primary energy used to generate electricity and the efficiency of the conversion. Based on this information, the smart meter can be programmed to provide information about the carbon footprints of the unit to which it is connected to, for all to see.

Smart meters can have other applications:

In addition to reporting your energy usage, the smart meter can inform the utility immediately if there’s a power outage in your area (like Texas smart meters, for example). It can quickly dispatch crews to resolve the situation and get your power back on as soon as possible. Once everything is back to normal, the smart meter will notify your utility of the resolution.

How can you save energy with a smart meter?

One of the biggest benefits of a smart meter for consumers is the ability to track energy usage. Most smart meters come equipped with a digital face that displays up-to-date information on the energy you’ve used. Though it won’t tell you what’s using the most electricity in your home, being aware of how much energy you use can guide you to make improvements.

Not everybody is a fan, however:

Across the nation there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the implementation of smart meters. One issue has been the fact that some smart meters have caught fire. Some believe the issue lies in faulty meter panels on the home, not the smart meter itself. Proponents of the device argue that when utility workers pull off the old meters they sometimes jar a defective part of the meter base. Since it’s not working properly, it overheats and has caused some instances of house fires. It’s also important to note that millions of smart meters have been deployed throughout the United States and very few have caught fire.

Another issue with smart meters is the amount of radiation they project. Some people claim the meters cause dizziness, memory loss, headaches or even cancer. However, these claims aren’t backed by science. Smart meters use the same technology as cellphones, which have relatively low radiation levels, but these advance meters have a radiation threat that’s even lower than a cellphone. The Huffington Post reports that even if you stand three feet from a smart meter the microwave exposure is 1,100 times less than holding a cellphone to your ear. Smart meters are typically placed outside the home, in the back or side of the property in places people don’t usually hang around. So the risk of exposure to radiation is even lower.

As I said last week, IoT plays a key role in the programming of smart meters. I am repeating the citation here:

Any electrical device that can be linked to your smart home system, communicate with other devices, and make certain decisions on its own is considered a smart device. Smart devices include things like televisions, stoves, alarm systems, doorbells, garage doors, and stereos. You may gradually turn your home into a smart home by purchasing smart IoT gadgets separately over time.

These IoT solutions then work together as a system to automate particular chores and can often operate from a distance. Sprinklers, cameras, and home security systems can all be programmed using a smart home system, along with other devices like air conditioners, heaters and refrigerators.

Purchasing a smart speaker may be all that is necessary for some people to transform their home into a smart one. For others, it may include tying together a variety of IoT solutions. Check out various smart home solutions to turn your house into a smart home!

Where and how to experiment with smart electricity meters in a way that will account for optimal return on investment? I am obviously biased but federated college campuses seem to be the best choice. I know the details of the energy distribution in my own school so I will use this as a model. The energy use in CUNY at the start of the pandemic was discussed in a previous blog (July 7, 2020). The University purchases the energy centrally and distributes it to the individual colleges based on enrollment and prior use. If a college underuses its allotted share, it is compensated for the difference. The reverse takes place for overuse.

Installation of a visible smart electricity meter in an individual college could be key to recruiting students, faculty, and staff to actively monitor energy intensity. For a university, energy intensity can either be calculated in terms of energy use per square foot of buildings or energy use per enrolled student. University campuses can serve as great experimental platforms for using smart meters as a tool to mobilize society to take care of the environment. This can be especially productive because the effort can integrate with existing interdisciplinary research environments and can be integrated with the broader “Campus as a Lab” curriculum that was discussed in earlier blogs (see July 19October 4, 2022 blogs).

In the next blog, I will shift gears to explore the impacts of climate change on internal and external immigration patterns.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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