The Caribbean Utilities Company is in the process of installing 27,560 new “smart meters” throughout Grand Cayman to allow consumers to monitor and better manage their power consumption.
According to CUC, the meters may also help consumers anticipate cheaper off-peak “time of use” pricing.
The $5 million program, which started in 2011, is nearly halfway finished. The company intends to have all its residential and businesses customers connected to the meters by the end of the year.
“The meter itself will not save the customer money,” said a CUC spokeswoman, but it “will allow the customer to get more detailed information on the quantity and timing of their electricity usage, allowing them to better manage their consumption.”
The device samples usage information every 15 minutes, including such anomalies as power outages. “The data is communicated wirelessly back to data collectors, which then re-transmits this information back to the systems at CUC headquarters,” the spokesperson said. “Customers can use this information to analyze their usage patterns and as a result, identify opportunities to save energy. These meters allow CUC to read more efficiently for billing and can also remotely provision and disconnect service without having to deploy field crews.”
The system also enables advance billing based on recorded data rather than on estimates of projected use.
The costs of the replacement program will not be charged back to consumers, the CUC spokesperson said.
“CUC is making this investment in its advanced metering infrastructure with the approval of the [Electricity Regulatory Authority],” the spokesperson said.
The company appears to have left the door open in regard to possible security. While the meters do not employ Internet protocols to move information, the wireless transfers are still electronic.
The possibility exists that hackers could manipulate consumption – and therefore billing – data or simply wreak havoc in the system.
“Our system does not use the Internet at all. It is a completely isolated network, owned and operated solely by CUC,” said the utility representative, although she conceded that an individual might try to intercept transmissions.
“CUC recognizes this risk and has mitigating systems in place,” she said without elaborating.
CUC uses meters supplied by Sensus of Raleigh, North Carolina and General Electric Digital Energy based in Atlanta, both of which have trained local crews in installation, troubleshooting and “meter configuration,” the utility says.
Other fears center on the possibility of overheating and subsequent fire, a problem reported in both the U.S. and Canada, although both suppliers have improved their equipment in the last year.
The spokesperson acknowledged the historical complaints about the meters, and said CUC had faced similar problems, but said they had been few and quickly addressed.
“Not unlike many other utilities, CUC has experienced failures of a small number of meters,” she told the Cayman Compass. “In most cases, investigations indicated that the meters were damaged due to heat building up in loose connections on the customer’s meter base or water intrusion into the meter base causing the electronics in the meter to short circuit.
“Sensus has upgraded their meters to resolve these issues,” she added.
Approximately 12,500 meters have been installed throughout Grand Cayman’s five districts. To date, no one has declined to participate in the program.
“CUC hasn’t had any such requests; on the contrary, customers are becoming aware of the benefits to them, and CUC has received requests for exchanges to be made sooner,” the spokesperson said.
James Whittaker, chairman of the Cayman Renewable Energy Association and founder of the Greentech Group, points out that smart meters are not particularly innovative, but need to be coupled with a broader program of energy conservation and even use of renewables.
“With the ability to gather data on a property’s energy usage in real time, in theory the power company can more accurately make decisions to be more efficient, and that should cut down on costs to them and, at least in theory, to the consumer,” he said.
Smart meters, Mr. Whittaker said, “could definitely be a good thing if used to their maximum potential and for the right reasons. Are we going to build a smarter grid and adopt cleaner and more stable sources of clean energy for the long-term benefit of the country and our consumers? Are we going to use these technologies to reduce their [CUC] costs and then pass those savings on to the consumers?
“Whether or not this is a good thing comes down to how effectively it’s used as a tool to benefit consumers and the country as a whole, versus improving the internal efficiencies and/or profits of the power company.”
Smart meters can potentially enable cost reductions through “time of use” information, encouraging users, for example, to operate washing machines at 3 a.m. rather than during peak afternoon and early evening hours.
“CUC does not offer time of use’ rates at this time,” the spokesperson said. “By changing its meters to the smart meter type, CUC will be able to consider the introduction of TOU rates in the future.”