Illinois Regulators Discount Smart Meter Fires

Having investigated several fires that broke out following installation of smart meters, the Iliinois Commerce Commission (ICC)—the state electricity regulator, among other things--has concluded that loose wiring and corrosion in the meter bases and not the meters themselves were to blame.

"Installers … received additional training to swap the analog meters for the digital ones, but they [were] not trained to perform extensive repairs to the old and deteriorated bases to which the meters are connected," the Chicago Tribune reported. "Regulators [said] the fact that installers did not recognize, repair or report the poor conditions contributed to fires and overheating."

Though the meter fires have made for bad publicity and provided ammunition to local activists opposing smart meter installation [see photo], the problem as such is obviously highly addressable. ComEd, the major Illiinois utility, has assured regulators that it is beefing up training so that installers will recognize and fix possible problems in the future. What is more, ComEd told the ICC, the new digital meters can take temperature readings and report overheating to the utility—something the older analog meters certainly could not do.

Why do seemingly isolated mishaps with smart meters arouse such wide concern? Arguably, the ultimate reason is that the new meters have yet to produce visible consumer benefits, despite a lot of smart grid hype. Until programs are organized and implemented that enable customers to use digital information to manage their energy consumption and reduce their electricity bills, the very existence of the new meters will remain controversial.

Americans, starting with the president of the United States, had been led to believe that wide installation of smart meters would rapidly lead to a radical transformation of the U.S. power system, leading to major efficiencies, monetary savings, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. This is why the 2009 stimulus bill contained billions of dollars in grants and loan guarantees to support installation of smart meters and phasor measurement units (PMUs).

That transformation is taking longer to realize than hoped, and so, in the meantime, smart grid advocates are going to be on the defensive. That is obvious reason why the premier this week of a documentary taking potshots at the smart meters, "Take Back Your Power,"  is arousing wide consternation among smart grid advocates.

Photo: Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune/Getty Images

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