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A Smarter Electric Grid

A stark reminder of our country’s outdated infrastructure is the sight of uniformed utility company personnel canvassing neighborhoods to read electric and gas meters in homes and businesses. For many residents, this means having to arrange access for meter readers. I have circumvented this issue by doing my own readings and telephoning them into the utility company, but this process adds a couple of steps on my end.

President Obama is trying to change the long-outdated meter reading process as part of the economic stimulus program. Earlier this week, the Obama Administration announced 100 grants, totaling $3.4 billion, to install smart electric meters in several American cities, including Houston. The intelligent meters would monitor electric usage in real time, making it possible for customers to more easily gauge utility usage and take corrective action, saving energy.

Smart meters have been talked about for several years, but only now is implementation is starting to occur in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. The benefits go far beyond not having to perform manual meter readings. Armed with real-time data on utility usage, individuals and businesses can more readily adjust their consumption patterns to take advantage of varying utility rates during peak and slack demand periods. Smart metering could also enable utility companies to allocate electricity resources more effectively during periods of high consumption, and more accurately record instances of outages.

The path to widespread smart meter usage won’t be easy, however. There’s the ever-present concern over security and other network interruptions that could potentially throw the system into chaos. In New York City where I live, the process of implementing smart meters would require a massive, time-consuming effort to replace hundreds of thousands of meters, many of them decades old. The local utility companies would need to invest huge sums of time and money to upgrade the hardware and software infrastructure to support smart meters.

There’s no indication that the raw demand for electricity will decrease anytime soon, given society’s ever-increasing reliance on electrical power. While nations search for ways to generate additional electricity, anything to improve utilization of the existing electrical grid is welcome. Smart meters are the way to go.