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Philadelphia-based utility PECO officially plans to complete its rollout of about 1.9 million smart meters by the end of 2014 - five years ahead of schedule.

The company filed its fast-tracked plan with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) in March and got the green light on Aug. 16. The PUC decision allows the utility to spend $282 million to accelerate its program, and PECO says the new timeline will help save about $58 million.

The utility began its full smart meter deployment in March 2012 and had originally aimed to complete the work by the end of 2019. Thus far, PECO has installed almost 700,000 smart meters across its service territory: Landis+Gyr (L+G) devices for residential customers and Elster models for commercial ratepayers.

Cathy Engel Menendez, a PECO spokesperson, tells Renew Grid that the utility requested to shorten its installation time frame in order to maintain the program’s progress and lessen costs.

“We were already working at a very good pace,” she says. “To take all of the time through 2019, it would have required us to change our process and procedures - for lack of a better phrase, to slow down.”

In addition, PECO currently has to operate two separate communications networks for existing AMR meters and newly installed smart meters. “It’s inefficient and it costs money,” Engel Menendez explains. “At the end of the day, it’s our customers’ dollars.”

Bumps in the road

In August 2012, PECO halted its smart meter rollout after several units overheated and were tied to fires. Each incident involved Sensus meters, which the utility had also been installing in addition to Elster and L+G models.

Following an investigation and independent testing, PECO announced in October 2012 that it was resuming its smart meter rollout and swapping out all Sensus meters with Landis+Gyr units.

“There were pre-existing conditions with customer equipment [such as faulty wiring in a home], and the [Sensus] meter would overheat rather than shut down and signal to the utility that there was an issue,” Engel Menendez says.

A Sensus representative was not immediately available for comment on this story. However, Randolf Wheatley, the company’s vice president of corporate marketing, told the Philadelphia Inquirer in October that the Sensus meters are safe: "All of the investigations we've seen have proven ... the Sensus meter is not a problem," he said.

PECO finished replacing the previously installed 186,000 Sensus meters in November, and Sensus still provides the utility's communications network. Engel Menendez says there have been no more overheating incidents.

“I think we were able to respond very quickly to those issues, put a variety of meters through testing, and resume and continue installation of meters with no issues,” she adds.

Full steam ahead
Engel Menendez anticipates PECO will have no problems installing the remaining 1.2 million smart meters by the end of next year. Meanwhile, the utility continues to reach out to customers regarding the upgrades.

Pennsylvania law requires that all utility customers have the advanced devices installed, and the state does not have an opt-out option. If necessary, PECO has the authority to terminate service to any protesting customer. Luckily, though, Engel Menendez says the utility has not had to do so thus far.

Instead, PECO participates in community forums to help make ratepayers comfortable with the new technology and gives customers a heads-up before installing a meter at their residence or business. Engel Menendez says the utility sends out letters and makes phone calls in advance, and an installer knocks on the door before getting to work.

“There’s a lot of opportunities for customers to interact with us and ask questions,” she says. "We want to make sure we educate them about the technology and its benefits.”

The utility is also already letting consumers take advantage of their new smart meters, offering personal hourly energy readings on the company website. In addition, PECO plans to begin a time-of-use pilot in October called the “Smart Time Pricing” program. Engel Menendez says some customers with smart meters will be eligible to lock in energy rates.

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