Tampa Bay's electrical grid isn't particularly "smart" right now. But over the next few years, it will get a lot more intelligent.
The bay area's two dominant utilities are rolling out technology that they say will make the electrical infrastructure easier to manage, more resilient to outages and able to give customers more control over their energy use.
One of the first major steps toward a smarter grid is installing smart electric meters on homes and businesses.
Duke Energy Florida and Tampa Electric Co. are in the process of swapping out customers' current meters for updated ones. About 12 percent of Tampa Electric Co.'s 750,000 customers and 1 percent of Duke Energy Florida's 1.8 million customers have them so far.
One significant difference between the new and old meters is the detailed information they provide.
Newer smart meters can provide energy readouts in increments as small as 15 minutes, according to Adam Cooper, senior director of research and strategy at the trade group Edison Electric Institute, which represents all investor-owned electric companies in the U.S.
That will let customers see their energy use in nearly real-time either online or with an app, allowing them to adjust their habits to keep their bills down. If, for example, a customer noticed their bill was on track to be higher than they would like, they could turn off extra lights or set their thermostat to a seasonal temperature that uses less energy.
Once the meters are fully installed around Tampa Bay, customers will be able to get alerts when their energy use is nearing their targeted cap for the month. They also will be able to start and stop their service remotely.
"For folks who really like lots of data about how their house operates and what their bills will be, this will be a benefit to them," said Cherie Jacobs, spokeswoman for Tampa Electric.
Tampa Bay utilities are in the middle of the pack in terms of smart meter conversions across the country. Smart meters began cropping up nearly 10 years ago, and about 60 percent of households nationally currently have them, Edison's Cooper said.
The meters' larger benefits are in the grid management capabilities they give utilities, especially when it comes to disasters such as hurricanes.
"(They're) a foundational building block for a smart grid," Cooper said.
Previous versions of smart meters could be read remotely, but only from a short range, such as from a meter-reading truck driving through neighborhoods each month. The new versions can be read from as far away as the utilities' physical locations, giving them the ability to figure out energy usage in real time.
Duke is in the process of rolling out related technology which can automatically reroute power during outages so a smaller number of customers lose electricity. The technology is now in use for about a third of Duke's customers.
Together with the smart meters, it can better pinpoint which customers are without power without having to send crews out to make assessments in person.
In Texas, CenterPoint Energy uses this capability to keep customers updated about power outages. Its alert system allows customers to sign up to receive updates about when power is likely to be restored and whether it is currently on.
This could be particularly helpful following natural disasters, such as hurricanes, when people have evacuated and want to know whether their power is back on so they can return. CenterPoint also allows customers to enroll friends and family, so they can track when a loved one gets their lights turned back on.
Smart meters also help other smart technologies.
The wireless communication infrastructure provided by the devices can also help with automating traffic signals so they adjust to traffic patterns in real time to ease congestion. It can also work with electrical vehicle charging stations to use power more efficiently, such as when it is least expensive or taxing on the grid.
Despite the benefits of smart meters, there are some concerns.
The granularity of the information collected by the meters, for example, is why some choose to opt out of having a smarter meter installed at their home. Privacy watchdogs worry that if the devices are not secure enough, they could be hacked and the hourly information used by thieves to target a home with vacationing owners. Both utilities emphasized the digital security of their incoming meters, and said the data is only used for billing and grid management.
And while the new meters are free to customers, opting out isn't. Duke customers who prefer their current meter are charged a $15.60 monthly fee and a $96.34 one-time set up fee to cover the cost of having an employee come out and read their meter each month for billing. Tampa Electric, spokeswoman Jacobs said, also will have an opt-out cost, but it has not settled on a price and will need approval by the Florida Public Service Commission.
Whether staff cuts will result also remains to be seen. Remote meter reading means there will be fewer meter readers. Both Duke and Tampa Electric said there are currently no staff cuts planned, as employees will still be needed for meter installations and related duties.
Duke expects its full rollout to be complete by 2021, while Tampa Electric will finish around 2022.
Contact Malena Carollo at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo.