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What Makes a 'Smart' Meter so Smart?

AARP and Virginia Citizens Consumer Council Express Concern About Cost, Variable Rates

Eric Gilchrist of Charlottesville is ready for the 'smart grid.'

Gilchrist, 55, has replaced old light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. He had extra insulation blown into his attic. He uses a programmable thermostat, six ceiling fans, energy-efficient appliances and power strips that keep his electronic equipment from gobbling power.

His energy-saving efforts — which Gilchrist modestly describes as "a little bit here and there" yield electric bills up to 40 percent lower than his neighbors.

Gilchrist looks forward to exerting even more control over his energy usage with a 'smart meter' installed by Dominion Virginia Power in a pilot project for 46,000 customers in his area.

 Dominion will spend $600 million to swap its 2.4 million residential meters in Virginia with smart meters by 2013. Domionion provides energy to two-thirds of the state.

The Obama administration has set a goal to have 40 million smart meters installed nationwide over the next few years, jump-started by $3.4 billion in stimulus grants nationwide. Dominion did not get a grant, but Rappahannock Electric Cooperative in Fredericksburg received $15.6 million to upgrade to smart grid technology, and Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative in Manassas got $5 million from the Department of Energy grant.

Smart meters can read how much energy is used, and when, so the utility can charge variable rates— more for power used in peak periods, less in off-peak times. Customers can lower their bills by running dishwashers or clothes dryers in off-peak hours.
   
AARP Virginia and the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council are working to ensure that consumers are protected as the new technology is phased in.

"We're not sure that smart meters are going to give consumers benefits as well as company benefits," said Irene Leech of Blacksburg, the consumer council president.

Madge Bush, advocacy director for AARP Virginia, said, "We are not opposed to smart meters, but it's moving so fast we need consumer legislation."

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