Pros and Cons of Smart Electric Meters

Old, analog meters (left) are being replaced with new, digital smart meters (right).
Courtesy of Southern California Edison

Smart electric meters are electronic devices that track and record the use of electricity in customers' homes. Electric utility companies have been replacing the outdated analog meters (that are read manually each month) with the new, high-tech digital smart meter versions. These smart meters automatically capture information about electricity consumption and then transmit it back to the electric company.

Smart meters can provide quick, accurate measurements of electricity use while eliminating the need for estimated monthly bills or home visits from meter readers. While this seems like the smart thing to do, there are concerns that smart meters are collecting unnecessary information about hourly electricity use. This collection of data could, potentially, be a violation of users' privacy.

Here's a look at the benefits and challenges that smart meters present to electric utilities, customers, and the environment:

Advantages for Electric Companies

  • Eliminates manual monthly meter readings
  • Monitors the electric system much more quickly
  • Makes it possible to use power resources more efficiently
  • Provides real-time data that is useful for balancing electric loads while reducing power outages (i.e., blackouts)
  • Enables dynamic pricing, which raises or lowers the cost of electricity based on demand
  • Avoids the capital expense of building new power plants
  • Helps to optimize income with existing resources

Advantages for Users of Electricity

After the electric company has fully installed its advanced metering infrastructure, smart meters offer the following benefits to electricity customers:

  • Far greater (and more detailed) feedback regarding energy use
  • Enable consumers to adjust their habits in order to lower electricity bills
  • Reduces the number of blackouts and system-wide electricity failures

Advantages for the Environment

  • Prevents the need for new power plants that produce greenhouse gases that substantially creates pollution that creates health risks
  • Helps curb existing greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants
  • Reduces pollution created by vehicles driven by meter readers

The Disadvantages of Smart Meters are Short Term

All technology has its benefits and drawbacks. While smart meters accomplish a lot, they also present challenges to electric utilities as well as customers. However, the vast majority of these disadvantages are short term, and currently there are no disadvantages for the environment. 

Disadvantages for the Electric Companies

Smart meters present the following challenges, and costs, to electric companies

  • The cost in terms of personnel training and equipment development and production to transition to a new technology and new set of processes
  • Managing negative public reaction and acquiring customer acceptance of the new meters
  • Making a long-term financial commitment to the new metering technology and the related software involved
  • Managing and storing vast quantities of the metering data collected
  • Ensuring the security and privacy of metering data

Disadvantages of Smart Meters for Consumers

  • It's hard to verify that the new meter is accurate
  • There's no way to protect the privacy of the personal data collected
  • There is an additional fee for the installation of the new meter

Other disadvantages include the reality that smart meters put human meter readers out of work, which hurts the economy. To date, hundreds of individuals have lost their jobs and most won't find new ones based on their esoteric skill-set. In addition, while it was anticipated that smart meters would save consumers money, consumers rarely check their meters because the system is so complex. Consequently, customers are unable to make energy consumption changes.