Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, the anti-smart meter “sharks” have come back with force. The fire has literally been relit with the recent series of fires at PECO energy in Pennsylvania (PECO Smart meter fire). As expected, initial responses by the utility just add more fuel to the debate, and bring up the past litany of reasons against smart meters (Not the meters, but…): dangerous electromagnetic fields, big brother smart meter privacy concerns, little consumer value, power utility money grab. However, responses are required—both to address the possible root cause(s) for the fires, as well as the justified emotional concerns of the energy consumer. PECO has taken the solid first steps necessary, by suspending advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) meter installations, and setting up additional testing for the meters in question. Instead of speculating on what PECO may or may not find, a general look at what power utilities have encountered in exchanging meters is more helpful.
Utilities have been exchanging and removing meters for decades, generally for service disconnects and to satisfy regulatory meter accuracy mandates. In fact, a large 3 million meter utility may perform 100,000 to 150,000 meter pulls in a year. This still only represents about 3–4 percent of the utilities installed meters. Historically for meter exchanges, the primary cause for voltage and fire events has been identified as an issue with the customer’s wiring or meter socket. Many of the current mass AMI rollouts have 3–5 year schedules, which accelerates the rate of encountering a customer wiring issue. Utilities have been identifying these issues—and either correcting them on their own or asking the customer to correct them—prior to the AMI meter exchange. Additional due diligence for the exchange procedures is generally welcomed by the utility, since any incidence of a fire is unacceptable to the very safety conscious energy industry.
So besides the actual meter, what is different about an exchange for an AMI meter from exchanges done historically? Why does it seem like there are more fires than before? I was directly involved in customer utility operations for over ten years, with a robust safety program that achieved top decile performance in many areas. Meter fires were very rare. I wanted to get a better handle on the industry history in this area, so I turned to what a customer is likely to do for information, surf the internet.
Doing a quick web search for “meter fire” or “electrical meter fire” produces dozens of links and videos. Interestingly, all of the information hits are about smart meter fires. The embedded links in these pages point to additional smart meter fires, anti-smart metering messages, and consistently contain the most spectacular videos of burning meters. After scrolling through 8+ pages of links that only contained smart meter issues, I began to think that maybe this was a new issue. But I took an additional step that the average consumer likely would not do—I omitted pages with the word “smart.” Meter fire articles did appear, but there were drastically fewer in number, and definitely not sensational videos or speculation. This highlights the real challenge of managing the social media message aimed at the consumers’ emotions against the facts behind these installation issues.
Utilities have just begun to learn about how to manage these information channels, and still have quite a way to go. Even a well respected firm, such as Toyota, took a significant hit with their multiple vehicle recalls, and searching for “Toyota recall” today returns three times as many hits as “meter fire!” So, the root causes for these fires should be identified and the information gained be shared as transparently as possible. However, this sharing is not just a one-time event. The message needs to be repeated in as many forums as appropriate, connected to other findings throughout the industry, and be ready for the inevitable re-lighting of the internet information bonfire.
By: Mike Meehan, principal consultant, Management & Operations Consulting, DNV KEMA Energy & Sustainability