Starting today, Lawrence will get a little smarter. Well, at least the electric meters in the city will. Westar Energy is beginning the mass installation of smart meters, a new technology that will mean no more drive-by meter readings, and energy usage information on 15-minute intervals.
The meters, all 44,000 of them, are part of the $40 million SmartStar project. Half of the meters are being covered by federal stimulus dollars. Over the past several years, our readers have had many questions about the technology.
Here, with the help of Westar’s SmartStar director Hal Jensen and director of meter operations Kevin Heimiller, we answer some.
When can I expect to see a smart meter installed at my house?
Westar will start installing the smart meters this morning. The meters should be installed in all residential neighborhoods by the end of the year. Of course, bad weather could extend that time line. Those with hard-to-access meters might not get a new one until after Jan. 1.
The first meters will go in the south-central part of Lawrence, between 19th and 31st streets. From there smart meters will be deployed based on billing cycles.
How will I know when my meter is exchanged?
Before each exchange, Westar’s installation crews will knock on the customer’s door to notify them of the switch, explain the process and leave a packet of information. If no one is home, crews will go ahead and exchange the meter and then leave a packet of information that explains the SmartStar project and how to access the meter’s detailed online data.
On the SmartStar website (smartstarlawrence.com), Westar plans to keep customers up to date on which neighborhood is scheduled next to have the smart meters installed.
The power will go out for about a minute while the meter is being exchanged. It shouldn’t be much different than any other momentary power outage. If Westar can’t gain access to the meter, workmen will leave a phone number, 855-782-7663, asking the homeowner to set up a time for them to complete the meter exchange.
What if I don’t want a smart meter?
Westar doesn’t have an opt-out option because the existing drive-by meter reading system will no longer have the technology to support it, Jensen said.
While customers won’t have to do anything different with the new meters, Jensen said it will give Westar more information about when power failures occur and what caused it.
Will my rates change?
One of the benefits of smart meters is the ability to establish a billing structure where electricity is most expensive at the times when it is in highest demand. Often those peaks occur on hot summer afternoons.
By next summer, Westar plans to offer different pricing plans that would link rates to demand.
However, Jensen said pricing plans would be voluntarily, not mandatory. So, a flat rate would still be available.
“I think we would much rather go down a path of offering customers choices and options. And, then seeing if we can provide appropriate incentives to attract large enough groups of people,” Jensen said.
And, any of the optional plans would have to receive approval through the Kansas Corporation Commission.
Over time, everyone’s rates will likely go up to cover the Lawrence smart meter project. Westar has filed a rate case with the KCC. Westar is asking the KCC to decide whether it can recover its $20 million piece of the project through customer rates. The cost would be covered by all of Westar’s customers.
Can Westar sell the data it gathers with my smart meter?
Westar will abide by the same privacy regulations that it does today, meaning a customer’s usage information and billing information is shared only with the company and customer.
“We will not sell or disclose information to other third parties unless a customer requests it,” Jensen said. Of course, if Westar is subpoenaed to release energy data information for legal reasons, it will do so.
Are there any negative health effects related to smart meters?
In California, customers have opposed a massive rollout of smart meters based on concerns of the effects from the meter’s electromagnetic waves. Coupled with other wireless technologies, such as cellphones, those opposing smart meters worry about the potential for health problems.
Westar claims the smart meters being installed in Lawrence have the same strength of radio frequency or less as a baby monitor or garage door opener. The smart meter transmits a signal for less than 10 seconds a day.
The radio frequencies from the smart meters are similar to the meters in operation in Lawrence homes now, Heimiller said.
“We’ve had them in since 1996, and we haven’t had any issues at all,” he said.
Will Westar be able to control my power through a smart meter?
Westar’s SmartStar program is sometimes confused with its WattSaver program. The WattSaver program is a voluntary program that provides a free programmable thermostat to customers. In return, Westar has the ability to cycle on and off air conditioners in 15-minute intervals during the hottest times of the year. This process allows Westar to reduce energy usage during peak times. During last summer’s string of 100 degree days, WattSaver used this option about six times.
Smart meters have nothing to do with the WattSaver program. The meters don’t have any control features, Jensen said. It is either on or off. It also doesn’t gather data on individual appliances. It reads a home’s overall energy usage. “There is no ability to limit power. It is not a function to control anything individually within the house,” Jensen said.
How do I access information from my smart meter?
Customers who want to tap into the smart meter’s data need to log into their Westar online account. To do so, go to WestarEnergy.com and click on “My Account.” From there, you will be directed to the SmartStar Dashboard. If you don’t have an online account, you can set one up at WestarEnergy.com. You will need your account number.
The dashboard will allow you to see energy use in 15-minute increments and in daily summaries. Data won’t be displayed in real time, but will be available the next day. Customers can sign up for text alerts to notify them when their bills reach a certain dollar amount or if there are uncharacteristic spikes in energy use.
The SmartStar Dashboard will be available one day after the smart meter is installed.