Pacific Power will start rolling out new smart meters in Clatsop County in February that track power usage by the hour.
The project is part of a $117 million investment by the private utility in 590,000 smart meters across Oregon, including 24,000 in the county. The installations will begin on the north side of the county and move south, with completion expected between the end of April and early May.
The smart meters have a communications module that uploads power usage data via a secure wireless mesh network to Pacific Power’s servers. About six weeks after installation, customers will be able to look at their hourly power usage on a secure website.
“From other customers with smart meters, they have better insight into their energy use,” said Alisa Dunlap, a regional business manager with Pacific Power in northwest Oregon. “They can take a look when things are spiking, which internal issue might be occurring.
“Right now, customers have to call us when the power is out," she said. "These meters will automatically notify us, so outages should be shorter.”
Cory Estlund, Pacific Power’s manager of field support, said there are about 70 million smart meters across the U.S. More than two-thirds of Oregon homes and businesses have them. The utility waited several years to allow the technology to be refined and come down in price before investing.
“The difference is they have a communication module that lets us handle data,” Estlund said. “Now we can do things remotely without having to roll out a truck and look at a meter.”
The change to online meter-reading will cut 100 positions from Pacific Power's statewide workforce of 5,500, including six in Clatsop County. Pacific Power gave employees two years’ notice of the change and has helped them find other internal positions or other employment, Dunlap said.
Some people have raised concerns about privacy from data collection and health worries over the mesh network, which sends information via radio waves between a collection of devices. Estlund said the concerns are largely the result of fearmongering online.
"There’s nothing that tethers into appliances or anything else,” he said of the smart meters. “We can only measure how much power you’re using in your home. If privacy is your concern, I would probably point you to Comcast or AT&T.”
As for the health worries, the new meters meet all modern safety standards and have been put though several rounds of testing, he said. The smart meters are certified by safety consultant Underwriter Laboratories and the American National Standards Institute. Each meter is tested before shipment.
Pacific Power has been reaching out to customers about the installations. Workers with Aclara Technologies, the manufacturer of the new meters, will visit homes and businesses with badges identifying them as installers for the utility. There is no charge for installation.
Customers can opt out of having the smart meters installed, but face a $36 monthly fee for meter reads.
Pacific Power has submitted an alternative opt-out plan to the state Public Utility Commission, in which customers would pay $9 a month for less-frequent meter reads. The program would be available to 200 customers starting March 1. They would have the opportunity once a year to continue in the pilot or install a smart meter at no cost.
In October, Josephine County commissioners adopted an ordinance prohibiting utilities from charging opt-out fees for customers who do not want smart meters. The Public Utility Commission sued the county, arguing that local governments do not have the authority to set utility rates.
County commissioners in Coos Bay rejected a similar ordinance on opt-out fees this month.