If knowing is half the battle, then we’ll soon be winning out over brownouts that threaten our electricity grids. That’s the idea behind smart meters, the new wave of utility meters. These digital devices — which are replacing 100-year-old analog technology — record how much electricity per hour and day is consumed. Such detailed information helps homeowners and businesses know to dial back their usage during peak hours, when transmission lines are overloaded.

Peak hours, usually between 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on scorching hot afternoons, occur when air conditioners and ventilation systems run at full capacity in addition to the normal amount of electric used in daily afternoons, causing brownouts when too much electricity is demanded from electrical grids.

Peak times are most intense between 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., when there is an overlap between people arriving home — turning on air conditioners, powering up electronics and cooking — and businesses still operating until close, says Paul Moreno, spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric in northern California, which has installed 2.3 million residential smart meters and will install 9.8 million by 2011.

If smart meters do their jobs, these devices will prevent brownouts and the need to build new power plants.

Meter readers go digital

Smart meters look much like our old analogs with the spinning discs, but have a digital display and can transmit information back to the power company via wireless radio. Since these digital meters can be tracked remotely, there’s no need to worry about letting a meter reader behind locked gates or into garages or basements.

Whereas analog meters can track only how much energy is used each month, smart meters’ digital data can be collected hourly or every 15 minutes — or more often, depending on the utilities’ capability. Power customers who have a smart meter can easily read and calculate their own energy usage, and some utilities offer the option to create an online account to see bar graphs and other data tracked by smart meters.

“On the chart you can see when the customer wakes up, then at night usage will be very low, the refrigerator may cycle on and off from time to time, then you’ll see an increase as lights come on and as coffee brewers start going, then it goes down if no one is home,” Moreno says. In the future, customers of some utilities, including Pacific Gas & Electric, will get real time energy usage information, and be able to track how much energy particular appliances are using.

Discount for off-peak usage

Some power companies are offering customers credit on their electric bill for using electricity outside of peak hours. Pacific Gas & Electric offers three cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity used outside of official peak load times, which occur on no more than 15 days a year, with a maximum of 75 hours per year. During peak hours, however, energy users will pay 60 cents per kilowatt-hour on top of the regular rate.

“With smart meters, we can offer these voluntary rate options, so it’s an opportunity to save money, make better use of renewable power and burn less fossil fuel,” Moreno says.

As part of California’s energy action plan, all state utilities are swapping electric and natural gas meters with smart meters, so San Diego Gas & Electric also rolled out its own smart meters and will be replacing all of its customers’ meters by 2012, with no plans for special peak-time rates.

Idea catches on across North America

In Florida, the new stimulus-funded Energy Smart Miami will deploy more than 1 million smart meters to homes and most businesses in Miami-Dade County powered by Florida Power & Light Co.

The 2 million customers of Baltimore Gas & Electric will soon have smart meters and rebates for reducing power consumption during peak times. In their 2008 pilot program, participating residents reduced energy consumption during peak periods by about 30 percent and saved about $100 a year, according to a company news release.

In Ontario, Canada, smart meters will be required in every Ontario home and business by 2010. Power supplier Hydro One has installed nearly a million so far, and promises peak load pricing in the near future.

Similar smart meter programs are under way in Alabama as well as Detroit, Mich., and Houston, Texas, and other metropolitan cities areas around the world.

This new wave has come ashore now due to rapid advancements in technology, says Pacific Gas & Electric’s Moreno. “Smart meters do more and much more cheaply than meters a few years ago.”

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Smart meters help homeowners, businesses dial back power usage during peak hours, when transmission lines are overloaded.