The Western Virginia Water Authority has adopted a new smart metering system. What are the benefits and drawbacks for consumers?
Saving water and saving energy
By Gary Robertson
The Western Virginia Water Authority strives to protect our natural resources and enhance the quality of life in our regional community through the effective use of innovative water management practices. Backed by guaranteed savings in operational costs, the $32 million energy performance-based contract currently underway meets the organization’s goals by increasing meter accuracy, improving leak detection, reducing energy costs and decreasing carbon dioxide emissions — all without adverse impact to the operating budget.
Up until 2010, the authority funded $600,000 annually for meter replacement and implementation of a radio read meter system. However, as this process would not quickly provide the organization and our customers with the savings or data needed, the decision was made to enter into the performance-based contract. Over the past year, 58,000 commercial and residential water meters have been replaced with electronic wireless meters to take advantage of advancements in metering technology and to better identify water lost to leaks.
The new system includes a fixed-base Automated Meter Infrastructure system that reads meters remotely and frees up existing meter readers for more strategic purposes. A new integrated customer information system implemented in July improves current billing and customer service practices. This system offers our customers the option to receive paperless bills, review consumption graphs online and get account information 24 hours a day.
Not only will the new meters help customers detect leaks sooner (consumption data is gathered daily as opposed to every two months), the project includes installation of zone meters that compare meter readings to production statistics on a neighborhood scale.
This new knowledge enables the authority to accurately identify underground leaks that are contributing to water loss and direct capital improvement dollars to those areas that will provide the greatest return on our customers’ investment.
As the authority is fully funded by ratepayers, any savings generated by reducing water lost to leaks directly benefits our customers by allowing us to effectively spend dollars in infrastructure maintenance.
Reducing energy expenses and carbon emissions is another key component of the project. Improvements include installing new higher efficiency lighting and HVAC systems in our buildings. Because pumping water uses so much of the authority’s electrical budget, 17 pumps were selected for replacement. The new pumps all have high-efficiency motors that use considerably less energy.
The upgrades are expected to help the authority save more than $1 million in annual electricity and operational costs and reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by 8.8 million pounds per year — an amount equal to removing more than 780 cars from the road annually. Saving water and saving energy benefits all our customers by allowing the authority to wisely invest in our community’s drinking water system.
Robertson is the Western Virginia Water Authority executive director for water operations.
More costs than monetary attached to new meters
By Irene Leech
Probably the biggest problem facing consumers today is privacy and data collection. A lot of information is being collected on us — what we buy, where we are, who we talk to, what we watch on TV — the list is endless. New technology makes it possible to collect even more information, and information collected for one purpose is used for others, even unrelated purposes. There is no policy that assures us that information on us is ours or that it will not be used against us. In fact, it is generally assumed that we trade our information for other benefits.
The particular consumer concerns vary with the specific equipment. I do not have details about the system planned for the Western Virginia Water Authority; but consumers, consider:
– What information is collected and how is it used? In addition to benefits, are there risks or new problems that could result? For example, if the smart meter makes it easier to disconnect service, will someone with bill problems be disconnected sooner? Might the meters make it possible for “someone” to decide you used too much water and turn off your supply? Could the meter lead to time-of-use rates that result in higher costs to use water at certain times?
– Who will have access to information? Consumers are concerned if the information is shared with others or combined with other information for unknown purposes. Today, data from many sources are combined for behavioral marketing. Marketers say it allows them to better meet our needs. They may also influence us to do things (buy things) that aren’t in our best interest. Or the government may use it for some purpose we can’t imagine right now.
– Could unauthorized people access my information? Remember all the problems we had when cell phones were new and people got our phone numbers as we drove under bridges? We found out when we got exorbitant bills. We need to assure that smart meter security prevents unauthorized access. Thieves might check water use to determine who’s away from home, for example.
– What will it cost? Consumers are concerned about both direct and indirect costs. How much will the monthly bill increase? How long will it take to pay for it? Given the huge need to update aging water infrastructure, is this the best use of our dollars right now? Would it be better to let the smart meter technology mature before we invest in it? Will meters be useful longer than the payoff period? What will it cost me to access my information? Will the information be understandable? Will current workers lose jobs?
Consumers, carefully evaluate the costs and benefits of the proposed new meters. Monetary costs are just part of the equation.
Leech is the president of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, a grass roots consumer education and advocacy organization and associate professor of consumer affairs at Virginia Tech.