Smart grid slow to catch on in Northern Indiana

August 14, 2013

WBEZ/Michael Puente
Tracy Hall stands near the solar panels he installed on his Munster, Indiana home.

Ten years after the largest blackout in North American history, the effort to upgrade our electrical grid is as urgent as ever. More than 50 million people lost power during that extended outage, and now many utilities are launching so-called smart grids to help prevent it from happening again. But while Illinois is helping lead the way, much of Indiana has been slow to adopt the technology.

In interviews with utilities and smart grid advocates, many say the lack of progress in the Hoosier state may be due partly because of fear and misinformation. But that doesn’t mean work isn’t being done to improve the existing system. In fact, Tommy Hemphill visits about three dozen homes a day in Northwest Indiana installing new electrical meters.

“I don’t have to shut off the electricity before pulling out the old meter. It just takes a few minutes and I’m done,” said Hemphill, a contractor hired by Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO).

The electric and gas utility that’s based in Merrillville serves the top-northern third of Indiana, from the Illinois state line to Ohio. Over the next three years they plan to change out more than a million meters. The goal is to speed up the way workers track electricity usage from individual homes.

Eric Kaeb is NIPSCO’s project manager.

“They can have a range of up to a mile away but instead of someone actually having to physically come on your property now, they’ll just drive by on a truck and collect all the readings,” Kaeb said.

It sounds nifty, but this device, called an Automated Meter Reader (AMR), has been around for three decades. This is not considered smart grid technology. A smart grid allows your home’s electrical system to communicate better with the power company. It can also re-route electricity around downed power lines so blackouts are much less likely. The current grid can’t do that.   

But, unlike other areas of Indiana, NIPSCO is not upgrading to smart grid technology anytime soon.

The utility says it’s too expensive. NIPSCO’s newer meters are costing the company $90 million dollars. Installing AMI (Advanced Meter Infrastructure) meters, the price would likely double, says NIPSCO Public Affairs Manager Nick Meyer.

“If we went to the smart meter route, it would probably raise your cost about 50 percent just for the meters,” Meyer said. “And then you’re talking about the IT support and infrastructure that goes along with it.”

So for now, Meyer says NIPSCO will spend $1 billion just to maintain its old grid and install the new AMR meters. These AMR meters are not smart meters but they do keep better tabs on customer usage. And that alone worries some Hoosiers.

A bill introduced in the Indiana House last spring actually would have given NIPSCO customers that option of refusing instillation of the AMR meter to their home. Some customers are worried about hackers or the government’s spying eyes.

“The main concern was invasion of privacy as well as government intervention. This bill was a way for individuals to say enough is enough. We’re not going to let you advance this effort any further,” said Indiana State Rep. Tim Neese, R-Elkhart, the sponsor of the bill.

But the bill didn’t get even get a hearing and died in the House Utility and Commerce Committee, which Neese is a member. Neese said what ultimately doomed the bill was the “definition” of what a smart meter is or isn’t. He says it may take some time for the public and elected officials to catch up to speed on smart grid technology.

“I think for people to have the ability to be better informed on the pros and cons of smart meters, that this is going to take a few years,” Neese said.

Currently, NIPSCO does not give homeowners an option to “opt out” of the AMR meter change out.

NIPSCO’s Kaeb says the fears some people have are unwarranted.

“We only gather readings. There’s no other private information that’s ever gathered from the customer,” Kaeb said.

Tracy Hall says some people just don’t trust new technology. When you hear the term smart grid a lot of people have this fear of new things and fear of big brother. But it’s not like that,” said Hall, a professional electrician for more than 30 years.

Hall is a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 697, based in Merrillville, and even teaches students the latest in the field. Six years ago, Hall installed solar panels on his home in Munster, Indiana, located just outside of Chicago. He did this as a way to reduce his electricity costs and becomes he’s committed to renewable energy. In a smart grid system, Hall says, NIPSCO could draw extra solar or wind power from homeowners like himself which it can’t do now.

“To me, it’s just going to make for a stronger grid. It will be better for everybody,” Hall said. “I don’t understand where the fears are coming from.”

One thing that could sound ominous is a new NIPSCO program that uses something called a smart switch. Installed on people’s houses, it lets NIPSCO turn off customers’ air conditioners during periods of heavy use on really hot days.

“If they could shut off 50 percent of the air conditioners for a half an hour in a neighborhood during peak times, and then bring those slowly back online while they are shutting off the other half down, they could really reduce their peak loads a lot,” said Hall, who is considering participating in the program.

To the casual observer that may sound like another big brother-type intrusion, but the program is optional and customers who sign up get a $10 monthly credit on their bill.

“I understand like if NIPSCO could shut down certain loads where that could bother people, but right now that’s a voluntary program and they’re actually give you a cash credit for participating in that program,” Hall said. “So to me I think it’s a good idea.”

A bigger concern for NIPSCO and the rest of Indiana is falling too far behind the implementation of smart grid technology. Bruce Hamilton, president of Smart Grid Network, Inc., of Chicago, says high-tech firms are going to want to move to areas that have smart grid technology.

That’s one reason, he says, the City of Chicago is seeing major investment by high-tech firms.

“Certainly the states that are moving to deploy this technology and demonstrate success in deploying this technology will attract the vendors that technology.” Hamilton said.  

But according to electrician Tracy Halls, the future of electrical power in Northwest Indiana may be here sooner than you think.

“This whole thing with being able to control your air conditioner, to me that’s smart grid whether they’re admitting to it or not,” Hall said.

Follow WBEZ NWI bureau reporter Michael Puente on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.