‘Smart meters’ soon to go online

Duane Hicks

“Smart meters” in Fort Frances are expected to go online later this year, but “time of use” rates won’t come into effect until sometime next year, according to the Fort Frances Power Corp.
“The provincial government has legislated that all residential and small commercial electricity consumers in Ontario must have a smart meter installed by the end of 2010,” FFPC president and CEO Joerg Ruppenstein told town council Monday night.
“To comply with this legislative requirement, the Fort Frances Power Corp. has devoted a lot of time and effort in preparing for smart meters,” he added.
In 2008, the FFPC procured its smart metering system. Then last year, 95 percent of the meters in town were replaced with new smart meters.
This year, the FFPC will install the remaining five percent of smart meters, and focus on linking the smart meter system to the provincial system.
“By the end of this year, information from our smart meters will be connected to the provincial meter data and management repository,” Ruppenstein explained.
“Smart meters will enable meters to be read remotely and provide us with hourly consumption data,” he added.
“Under our current model, we go around once a month, we read the meter, we have monthly data.
“With the smart meters, we don’t have to go around and read them—they can be remotely read.”
The smart meters will record electricity consumption information on an hourly basis and report it via wireless technology back to one of six data collectors that will be located at strategic places in town (they work kind of like cellphone towers).
These, in turn, will relay that information back to control computers operated by the FFPC.
“We’re very close to making remote reading a reality,” Ruppenstein said. “We’re targeting the end of June to get remote reading here in Fort Frances.”
The province also is mandating electricity distributors to implement a new billing rate structure called “time of use” (TOU) rates that will utilize data provided by the smart meters, and give people a new way to manage their consumption and reduce costs.
As it stands now, there is little incentive to manage electricity use because prices remain the same regardless of the time of day (this is because the current meters can’t report when electricity is used).
TOU rates will vary throughout the day, being more expensive at peak times and less expensive during off-peak periods.
Knowing when these times are, people will be able to choose when and how they use electricity.
Depending on the demand and availability of supply, electricity market prices will rise and fall over the day and drop overnight.
Other variables include days of the week (i.e., week, weekend, and holidays) and seasons (summer versus winter).
Since rates will vary, customers will be more likely to reduce their consumption at times of peak demand and shift their consumption to time of lower demand.
TOU periods will be classified as on peak (when cost and demand are highest), mid-peak (cost and demand are moderate), and off-peak (cost and demand are lowest).
Ruppenstein said TOU rates currently are in effect for about seven percent of small commercial and residential electricity customers in Ontario.
The province has targeted one million consumers by the end of 2010 and 3.6 million by June, 2011.
But Ruppenstein said “we will likely not have time of use rates here in Fort Frances until well into next year.”
‘Green’ energy
Meanwhile, a change to the electricity industry has been the Green Energy Act, which was passed on May 14, 2009 and is meant to attract new investment, create new “green” economy jobs, and protect the environment.
The main appeal of this is a new feed-in tariff regime which provides guaranteed rates for energy generated by renewable sources (biomass, biogas, wind, solar voltaic, etc.)
Regulatory approval processes for renewable energy projects have been streamlined to eliminate construction delays, noted Ruppenstein, pointing out the legislation supersedes zoning bylaws, meaning that if someone wanted a solar panel on their roof, and zoning didn’t allow that, they would be able to do it anyway.
He said that through the Ontario Power Authority, those wanting to do a renewable energy project can enter into a 20-year contract (a 40-year contract for water power projects) whereby guaranteed rates would offset costs of doing the projects while allowing developers to see a reasonable rate of return.
“To date, we haven’t seen any applications in our service area, but we’re starting to receive inquires and phone calls that people are seriously looking at putting solar panels on their house,” noted Ruppenstein.
By the end of the year, he expects the FFPC will be helping people make renewable energy a reality in Fort Frances.
Speaking more generally, Ruppenstein said the FFPC delivered 86 million kWh of electricity in 2009.
Electricity volume delivered in 2009 was down 1.6 percent from 2008, with the main contributing factor being the cooler summer (and thus less air conditioner use) last year.
Regarding door-to-door electricity retailers, Ruppenstein noted licensed retailers legally are allowed to lock people into contracts under which they’ll likely pay higher rates than if they stayed with the FFPC.
In nearly all cases, customers didn’t know what they’re getting into, and fell victim to high-pressure sales tactics and incomplete or misleading information.
Ruppenstein said about six percent of electricity customers in Fort Frances are enrolled in contracts, down one percent from a year ago.
He noted their bills are significantly higher than when they were with FFPC—double in some cases.
“We can’t hinder or disallow retailers . . . our only defence against retailers is education,” said Ruppenstein.
He noted that according to the Ontario Energy Board’s consumer rate comparison chart, FFPC customers have the lowest bills in the province—as much as 28 percent lower than the provincial average.