Energy experts call for better smart meters to help reduce drain on electricity grid

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Energy experts call for better smart meters to help Albertans reduce pressure on electricity grid
The January surge in electricity demand resulted in an emergency plea from the Alberta government for people to conserve power to avoid rolling blackouts. While Albertans responded to the emergency call to reduce power, programs designed to shift demand could have incentivized the same result. Carolyn Kury de Castillo reports on what is being done – Feb 4, 2024

In mid-January, Albertans got an alert warning them the provincial electricity grid was under so much pressure there was a risk of rolling blackouts. Fortunately, people responded and consumption went down.

Minister of Jobs, Economy and Trade Nathan Neudorf said the emergency alert was “an important lesson in energy conservation and demand-side management. This includes looking for ways to better use the power we have, how we can better integrate solar panels on homes, smart charging on EVs, smart metering on homes and other steps and advancements.”

Alberta is one of few jurisdictions with no energy-efficiency or demand-response programs for residential consumers, says experts. Demand response is a mechanism where customers can save money by reducing their energy use during times when the electricity system is experiencing high demand. It helps limit peak demand while allowing Albertans to save money by using less electricity or shifting some of their demand to hours when electricity is less expensive to supply.

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“It’s so expensive to serve highest peak times, so in principle, you can afford to provide large incentives to get people to shift their power such that folks would be very happy to do so if they were compensated for that,” said Sara Hastings- Simon, associate professor with the University of Calgary.

One way to incentivize lower energy consumption is by installing smart meters in homes. In a statement to Global News, a spokesperson for the Alberta Utilities Commission said, “Utility companies in Alberta have been installing wireless smart meters in businesses and residences for several years.”

However, they aren’t able to do the job required for demand response, said Blake Shaffer, associate economics professor at the University of Calgary.

“We don’t have ubiquitous smart meters: the type of meters that can read your consumption on a minute-by-minute basis.”

Right now that option is only available for large industrial users.

“The (Alberta Electric System Operator) has various programs for large industrial demand response, primarily used when we are in grid alert conditions, but we do not have visibility or direct involvement in the residential/commercial sector,” said Alberta Electric System Operator spokesperson Leif Sollid.

Shaffer says the distribution companies also need to get on board — that there’s an opportunity for energy retailers to go in and provide homeowner with smart meters.

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“If we can give them access to (a smart) meter or allow them to go and install (them), then all of a sudden you have innovative competition,” Shaffer said.

Currently, there are four major smart meter distribution companies in Alberta.

ENMAX started the rollout of Advanced Metering Infrastructure to all residential sites, which simplifies the way meters are read and is a step toward providing customers with more options for managing their electricity use.

Hastings-Simon says Alberta needs to change its market rules to account for the way consumers interact with the grid.

“In order to enable that, electricity retailers would have some information about when you’re using power through the meter in your home … We would need to see (data from) the start of the use of smart meters that track … or potentially allowing for other types of devices to be used to understand that hourly demand that a consumer has. It is doable,” Hastings-Simon said.

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