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Automated Energy Meters in Alberta

More and more electricity and natural gas distribution companies are installing automated ("smart") meter reading systems throughout Alberta. Automated meter reading systems dramatically reduce costs of meter reading and the need to estimate consumption. But what are they and how do they impact your energy consumption?

How Do Automated Meters Work?

Automated meters work in the same way as conventional meters, but also contain a communication chip and a battery. Several times a day, the communication chip sends meter reading data to a mobile collector by radio signal. The chip is dormant the rest of the time. The meter reading information is then sent to the energy distributor, through power lines (for certain electricity distributors), radio frequency, fibre optic networks, or cellular networks. The energy distributor sends consumption information to energy retailers for billing purposes.

The battery in the communication chip in automated meters is designed to last for 20 years. The communication chip (which is sometimes called an Encoder, Receiver, Transmitter – or ERT – device) operates at the same radio frequency as many cordless phones. However, it is designed not to interfere with other devices and will automatically switch to another frequency if it does detect interference.

How Do Automated Meter Systems Affect My Energy Bill?

 Energy distributors in Alberta have generally implemented automated meter systems as a means of reducing their meter reading costs. As rates are flat throughout the day for Alberta energy users, automated meter systems will not likely impact energy consumption in any meaningful way, and should be cost-neutral for the consumer. However, depending on your energy distributor you may be able to access your detailed energy consumption history online, which may be useful if you are seeking to change how you consume energy. Automated meter systems have generally been made mandatory in the areas where they have been implemented, with the costs of installation usually factored into the distribution costs. Depending on your utility, it may either not be possible to opt out of the automated meter system, or it may cost you more to have your meter read manually.

Automated Meter Systems and Privacy

Like conventional meters, automated meters record total energy consumption as it is being used. They do not record how energy is used (i.e. which devices are using energy), nor do they transmit any customer data (e.g. name, address, etc) other than the consumption information and the meter ID to the mobile collector. All automated meter systems must be in compliance with federal laws regarding privacy, and do not store or transmit personal information.

Who is Using Automated Meter Systems?

Automated meters are more widely used by industrial customers, though more and more energy distributors are deciding to install them for residential customers.

ATCO Gas began implementing automated meter systems in the communities it covers in 2011, and almost all of its customers use automated meters. Customers who would rather keep their conventional meters and have manual readings six times per year are subject to an Alberta Utilities Commission-approved fixed charge of $107 per year, with an additional $107 for every additional reading. Over one million ATCO Gas customers in approximately 300 communities currently use automated meters.

FortisAlberta uses automated meters that record information and send it along the power lines (called a Power Line Carrier – or PLC – system) on a daily basis.The company sends two meter reads per month reflecting actual consumption to energy suppliers. FortisAlberta also has a system that uses cellphone technology to communicate read information in areas were the power lines cannot be used for communicating meter reading. Almost 600 000 autmated meters have been installed in FortisAlberta territory since 2007.

The City of Medicine Hat began installing automated meters for gas, electricity, and water in 2013. Electricity meters have been updated, and installation of gas automated gas meters is ongoing.

The City of Lethbridge has been installing automated electricity meters throughout its service area as part of a three-year project that began in May 2013.