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Smart Electricity Meters Are Making Some Stupid Mistakes

Kathryn Farrell in Bricks & Bucks on December 24, 2020

New York City

Smart electricity meters, Con Edison, co-op and condo boards, energy consultants.

Con Edison began rolling out smart electricity meters in 2017. Some are smarter than others.

Dec. 24, 2020

In 2017, Con Edison announced that over the next five years it planned to replace nearly 5 million electricity meters with smart meters, digital devices that transmit energy consumption to Con Edison via a secure wireless network. The smart meters promised to deliver hands-on knowledge about exactly how much energy a building – or apartment – was using every day. The new meters would transmit readings on an ongoing basis, rather than being read monthly by a Con Edison employee. 

The future is now here, and it’s not quite what users imagined. The old electricity meters were mechanical, with a small disc inside that rotates. “Friction affects the rotating speed of the disc, which is the accuracy of the meter, so they get slower over time,” says Eric Jacobsen, communications manager at Quadlogic Controls, a submetering and energy services company. The result is inaccurate usage readings, meaning inaccurate electricity bills – and a potential shock when the new, more accurate meters are installed. 

But more accurate meter readings aren’t the only surprise potentially in store for Con Edison customers. There is an occasional disconnect between the smart meters and the utility’s billing system. “Let's say a smart meter was installed at the beginning of the year; for a period of up to six months, it may not be able to sync with the Con Edison billing system,” says Alexander Zafran, senior consultant and business development lead at Aurora Energy Advisors. “That means even though the meters are recording data, they may not be communicating the data properly to Con Edison, so the bills that are sent to customers won't reflect those readings. Instead, the bills were just estimated reads.”

Which can lead to an unpleasant surprise: If Con Edison’s estimates are based on historical data from old, worn-out meters that may have been inaccurate, when the actual bills are sent to consumers, they may end up being much higher than expected. 

“Their estimates are extremely frustrating,” Zafran says, “especially when they go on for six months, because that means that someone is putting aside money for these bills – only to find out several months later that they're in the hole for another $20,000 because the meters weren't reading information properly.” 

And it’s unclear how seriously the utility is taking these issues. “Con Edison has installed nearly 3.8 million smart meters since 2017,” a spokesperson says. “There have been isolated cases of billing issues, but they are rare. On the whole, the smart meters are making it easier for our customers to monitor their energy usage and control their costs. We encourage customers with questions or concerns to contact us directly so we can assist them as quickly as possible.”

Zafran agrees that boards need to pay attention. “There are some buildings where, fortunately, everything has been rolled out smoothly, and we've got other buildings where it's just been a nightmare,” he says. “If a board doesn't have an external energy consultant, it's on them, because I don't think Con Edison can be trusted to resolve all of these issues. Boards need to be diligent about looking at their invoices. And if they see that for two or three months in a row, they either don't have electricity bills or that the bills have been estimated, the onus would be on them to call Con Edison and get an explanation of the cause.”

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