Peter the Meter Reader evolving into George Jetson
By DAVE SOLOMON
New Hampshire Union Leader
DERRY – Fans of the 1960s sitcom “Green Acres” may recall one of the colorful recurring characters, Peter the Meter Reader, whose hapless efforts to help bring electricity to the Douglas homestead ended with Oliver climbing a utility pole with an electric socket dangling from the top wire – a move that plunges New York City, nine eastern states and three Canadian provinces into darkness.
New Hampshire’s own Peter the Meter Reader – Peter Lambert of Derry – has never met a couple like Oliver and Lisa Douglas in his 13 years with PSNH, now Eversource, but he’s been chased by dogs and has chased away would-be burglars.
The 54-year-old father of two is fit, trim and fast. “I get paid to work out,” he says, in between near sprints from one lawn to another as he crisscrosses a Derry neighborhood with his recording device in hand, carefully eyeing one meter after another. (See related story.)
In a densely populated area like Derry, he can read more than 1,600 meters a day. In nearby Chester, 263 meters is a good day’s work.
Soon, none of that will matter. There are only 49 traditional meter readers still working in the state, and by the summer of 2016, there will be none.
Eversource is the only one of the state’s four electric distribution utilities that still uses old analog meters that have to be read and manually recorded on-site. The other three (Unitil, Liberty and the New Hampshire Electric Coop) have already switched to digital meters whose contents can be transmitted by radio signals or over utility lines.
With by far the largest franchise area in the state (70 percent of the market), Eversource has more than 550,000 meters to switch over, in a process that began in late 2013, will continue this year and wrap up in 2016.
Half way there
Electrical subcontractors working for the meter manufacturer Itron have completed about half the project so far, with 225,000 digital meters successfully installed, according to Eversource spokesman Martin Murray.
“The Nashua region is done, has been done for some time,” he said. “The Manchester region is largely done, and we’re now in Keene and the Monadnock region.”
The company has gone from nearly 100 meter readers before the project began, to just under 50 today. When all is said and done, only 10 will remain. Their primary responsibility will be to drive a “remote-read” vehicle through a service area, collecting signals from meters along the way.
Murray said the company has so far been able to manage the reduction in labor through retirements and reassignments, without resorting to layoffs.
Eversource is investing $40 million in the conversion, which covers all aspects of the new program, including the meters, installation and all the hardware and software. The company has agreed to forgo another rate case with the Public Utilities Commission until 2017, assuming a tentative agreement over the sale of Eversource power plants is approved, which means recovery of costs for the project is at least two to three years down the road.
“We will seek, during some future rate case, to begin recovery of our capital expense,” Murray said. Such an expense is typically recovered over a number of years, which would be determined as part of the PUC process.
“But the estimated $6 million in annual savings is in current dollars and will benefit customers immediately,” he said, “as it will be realized and accounted for immediately.”
No more estimates
Other benefits to customers include the end to estimated meter reads, which would happen if the 100 readers just couldn’t get to every meter every 30 days.
And those homeowners who faithfully shoveled a path to the meter need not bother once the change occurs on their property
The changeover had generated some concerns and some complaints. The PUC has received numerous calls over the past year from property owners who thought the changeover was to a “smart meter,” a much more sophisticated device that can monitor and even control electricity consumption in real time.
“The majority of the calls relate to a general misunderstanding of AMR meters and the belief that Eversource is installing smart meters,” said Amanda Noonan in the PUC Office of Consumer Affairs. “We received one call regarding damage to an appliance that the customer believed to be related to the meter replacement.”
Murray said the complaints have ranged from people who claim the installer left a tire scuff mark in their driveway, to loss of computer data, “to an appliance that may not work in the same manner that it did before.”
“Most complaints appear to be associated with the temporary loss of power, which can happen at any time for a host of reasons,” he said. “In most cases, the people who have contacted us have been satisfied with the explanation. There have been a handful of people who claim they may have suffered some equipment or appliance damage, they believe, as a result of a power interruption.”
Smart meters years away
Eversource is working with those customers to investigate and determine if the changeover was the cause of the problem.
Although the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative recently completed a two-year experiment with 400 smart meters, Murray predicted use of smart meters in New Hampshire is a long way off.
“We don’t anticipate that we’re going to have smart meters installed or implemented in New Hampshire any time in the near future,” he said, estimating the cost of such a project for Eversource in the $140 million to $165 million range.
Beyond cost, the biggest obstacle is a state law requiring customer permission for smart metering.
“State law does not make it easy,” he said. “There would be an opportunity for customers to opt out. Then we would have invested a very large sum of money for a system that some or many are not even using.”
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