Do smart meters cut CO2 emissions? Chicago utility agrees to find out

©2016 E&E Publishing, LLC
Republished with permission

By Peter Behr

Chicago’s Commonwealth Edison has agreed to test whether customers with smart electric meters use less power and cause less damage to the environment than consumers with conventional meters.

“The ability to calculate the environmental benefits of clean energy investments, like smart meters, is critical to accelerating the new energy economy,” said the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which negotiated the agreement with ComEd, along with the Illinois Citizens Utility Board.

The agreement grows directly out of Illinois policy governing smart meter installations, making it another example of how differing state actions are pushing the evolution of electric utilities in different directions.

The Illinois legislature in 2011 permitted ComEd and Ameren Corp. to receive higher, performance-based utility rates if they invested in advanced electricity meters and met other conditions. EDF and the Citizens Utility Board petitioned the Illinois Commerce Commission to direct the utilities to track greenhouse gas emissions as one of the compliance conditions. With the agreement in hand, the parties have now joined in asking the ICC to dismiss the petition.

In a key element in the agreement, ComEd will compare how electricity demand differs for each hour of the day and year between customers with smart meters and those without them. If smart meter programs prompt customers to shift electricity use away from peak hours of the day, when older, “dirtier” coal-burning peaker power plants are often called on, the resulting reduction in greenhouse gas emissions can be estimated, said Dick Munson, EDF’s Midwest director of clean energy.

Munson said the tracking program can also show the climate benefits from energy conservation when power is coming from wind, solar and other zero-carbon fuels compared with fossil fuels.

In order for the agreement to reach its potential, however, more Illinois consumers will have to switch to “real time” electricity rates that track the changing wholesale price of power as demand ramps up and down during the day, Munson said.

Other smart grid applications may enable the utility to integrate renewable electricity more effectively, improve energy efficiency and reduce energy losses on power lines. Smart meters allow utilities to track customers’ power use remotely.

In a statement, ComEd said, “This groundbreaking work on measuring greenhouse gas reduction is a natural extension of our smart grid leadership, as we work with our partners to drive a clean energy future in Illinois.” ComEd has put in nearly 2 million meters across its service area and plans to complete installation of 4 million smart meters by 2018, two years ahead of schedule, a spokesperson said.

ComEd, EDF and the Citizens Utility Board spent several years trying to agree on the best way to measure greenhouse gas emissions before agreeing to disagree on the exact methods. According to Munson, Ameren was not actively involved in the negotiations, awaiting the outcome of ComEd’s efforts. “Our assumption is they will agree to this as well,” Munson said. Ameren did not respond to a request for comment.

ComEd’s preferred method is based on emissions data for peak and off-peak hours. EDF and the Citizens Utility Board proposed a method keyed to the different types of power plant fuels used each hour. In the new agreement, ComEd will take measurements both ways if the data are available so that the methods can be compared. “We’re fine with that,” Munson said. “To be honest, we want to see which one provides more accuracy.”

2 thoughts on “Do smart meters cut CO2 emissions? Chicago utility agrees to find out

  1. “peak hours of the day, when older, “dirtier” coal-burning peaker power plants are often called on”

    Coal does not, and can not, function as a “peaker” plant. The physics of a coal power plant do not lend themselves to turning the facility on and off (nor up-and-down). Coal is “BASELOAD” generation which runs 24hrs a day.

  2. CarbonMan,

    Exactly. Coal can only be used as baseload generation due to the long start-up times it takes for coal. Now if the author identified that by shifting peak period consumption to typical off-peak periods than the author could have made a more intelligent comment of “better utilization of baseload generation and the transmission grid will help the utility be more efficient and avoid the need to call on natural gas-fired peaking turbines…” then I would have said bravo.

    Green energy, gas, or coal. If we can better utilize the generating assets we already have, the less need to build redundant generation; and by curtailing the use of peaking plants (probably natural gas) we can lower our pollutants and carbon footprint as well.