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Thursday, 21 November 2013 18:05

Smart meters add data to energy discussions for small businesses

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Small businesses that want to know more about their energy use could soon see a new tool at their disposal.

Consumers Energy is in the process of installing its new smart meters for residential and small business customers in Oceana, Muskegon, Ottawa, Allegan, Newaygo and Kent counties.

The utility is updating 1.8 million electric meters and installing 600,000 natural gas communication modules at cost of approximately $750 million. More than 130,000 of the smart meters have been installed thus far.

“The Consumers Energy Smart Energy Program smart meters will help small commercial and industrial customers enjoy some of the benefits that larger (commercial and industrial) electric users already experience,” said Dennis McKee, communications director of Consumers’ smart energy program. 

The new programs will help bring more energy data to the fingertips of small business owners, he said.

“Many larger companies already have in-house energy management systems and staff that have access to more granular energy-use information that they can use to help make energy consumption and efficiency decisions,” McKee said.

However, the question for any business owner always boils down to why he or she should care about energy consumption, said Dave Rinard, director of global environmental performance for Steelcase Inc.

“It’s often that when we look at different programs that reduce energy usage, it’s about motivation, it’s about behavior, it’s about culture rather than technology,” Rinard said recently at the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum November meeting.

For many homeowners and renters, keeping track of the electricity bill is a common task, he said. But as energy becomes a bigger concern in the cost of doing business, smaller companies are just starting to pay closer attention to their monthly energy bills.

“Energy is one of the most significant costs that businesses have,” Rinard said. “It follows probably right behind labor and raw materials, so everything that we can do to help reduce those costs will help us be more globally competitive.”

Those businesses that want to thrive in a more global economy are the ones that make the best use of their resources, he said.

A business like Steelcase, which has its own internal energy management system, sees energy efficiency and other conservation measures as integral to its brand promise and part of its reputation in the marketplace, Rinard said.

However, not all businesses have the same resources that a company the size of Steelcase does, which is where some local business could start to benefit from the smart metering program, sources said.

With the smart meter, residents and small business customers of Consumers Energy can securely access daily data about their energy use when they log into a dedicated website. The point is to give customers more information and more insight into their electricity use, which they can then use to make decisions about implementing more energy efficiency measures or other projects, McKee said.

Smart meters also have the potential to help small companies benchmark data against a defined set of measurements, which is one of the first steps Rinard said any business should take in looking at its energy usage.

“At this stage of the Smart Energy Program, small (commercial and industrial) customers, insurance companies, corner stores, real estate offices, fabrication shops who share the same size meters as residential customers will gain access to the sort of daily energy consumption data that larger customers utilize already,” McKee said.

The smart meters transmit real-time data on energy use through a cellular network, which almost eliminates the need for in-person meter reading and helps Consumers’ billing accuracy by eliminating the need for estimated bills, McKee said.

Eventually, the new meters will also allow Consumers to respond quicker and more adequately to outages, replacing the current system that relies on customers to call about service disruptions.

The utility is positioning the smart metering program as providing energy that “works smarter,” Sally Scripps, Smart Energy Program manager for Consumers, stated in a release.

“The overall Smart Energy Program will help all customer segments to benefit from Consumers Energy’s enhanced capability to measure electric demand and more closely match supply,” McKee said. “Right now, the supply margin is greater than what will be needed in the future when smart grid upgrades, including smart meters, provide better capabilities for determining electric load more precisely.”

One challenge for the program is the protracted timetable for the utility to roll out the smart meters across its entire service area.

While Consumers expects to finish installing meters in most of Ottawa and Muskegon counties by the end of 2014, it doesn’t expect to complete meter installation across the majority of West Michigan counties until 2017, McKee said. The utility hopes smart metering will reach the northern Lower Peninsula by 2019.

After the residential-size meters have been upgraded with smart meters, upgrades for larger customers will follow as the program rolls across the state through 2019, McKee said.

“It’s going to be a long process,” he told attendees of the WMSBF meeting, “but one that will be worth it in the end.”

Read 5154 times Last modified on Thursday, 21 November 2013 22:23