Next time the power goes out, Florida Power & Light is going to know about it before you can fumble through the dark to find the flashlight and phone to yell at them.
That’s one of the big benefits of an $800 million “smart meter” installation program the utility announced on Wednesday it had completed for 4.5 million customers — almost all of its residential users statewide. FPL President Eric Silagy pronounced the milestone “truly a game-changer” that along with other “smart grid” upgrades would help the company speed repairs, reduce the size and duration of outages and save millions, even tens of millions in labor and efficiency costs.
He called the meters, equipped with a tiny wireless radio transmitter that sends instantaneous information, a “technological leap-frog. This is changing the way we can deliver power and communicate with customers.’’
What the meters won’t do is save customers money – at least alone. But with a new energy “dash-board” available online that can break down individual power use by the hour, day and month, FPL hopes customers will sign on to see how tweaking the settings on air conditioners, water heaters or other appliances can reduce electrical use and the monthly power bill.
After several years of testing and small-scale pilot programs, FPL began upgrading its system in 2009 — an effort boosted by $200 million in federal stimulus money from the Obama administration. FPL was one of six utilities across the country to get a grant of that size from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Some 550,000 customers in Miami-Dade and Broward counties have had the meters since 2010. The company, installing an average of 8,000 meters a day, finished upgrading customers across all 35 counties it services this month, about nine months ahead of schedule. FPL expects to complete work for businesses and larger industrial users later this year.
There are a few holdouts, including about 10,000 customers the utility hasn’t been able to contact, and another 14,000 who have rejected the technology for a variety of reasons, from health concerns about the radio transmissions to fears that smart meters are really secret government monitoring devices or part of some United Nations conspiracy to control the world.
Silagy said the fears were unfounded and he hoped that with more information, holdouts would sign on.
“If you go back in history, the car, the airplane, whatever, there have always been folks that have been frightened by change and new technology,’’ he said during an interview with three media members at FPL’s Miami headquarters on west Flagler Avenue.
He said the meter is dormant 99 percent of the time, sending out microbursts of data on the same radio frequency used by typical baby monitors and they monitor only overall energy use — not specific items in a home.
“I can’t tell if you’ve got a lamp on in the living room or not,’’ he said. “I can’t tell what you’re doing in your home.”
While he said he understood some customers’ resistance to change, Silagy stressed that FPL intended to charge holdouts more to offset the added expense of sending out meter readers no longer needed otherwise. FPL is working with the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, to set a fee but a decision on the amount is not expected until this summer. It could be an expensive choice. Lakeland Electric has set a charge of $16.25 per month for customers who opt out.
“The customers who have embraced this technology shouldn’t have to subsidize those who don’t,’’ Silagy said.
Over time, the program would phase out some 600 meter-reading jobs, but Silagy said many were being giving opportunities to train for new roles with the company. To date, 190 jobs have been lost, an FPL spokeswoman said.
Bryan Olnick, FPL’s vice president of smart grid solutions, said the utility is confident the meters, made by General Electric, would thwart both would-be hackers and power thieves who illegally tap into power lines. Silagy such power poaching, which he estimated ran into tens of millions of dollars or more every year, drives up costs for other customers.
Olnick said the meters used encryption technology similar to the kind employed by banks and the military to securely transmit only power figures, not any personal data about customers.
“Cyber-security as you can imagine with a company like ours is paramount for us, whether it’s with a smart meter or other devices we use,’’ Olnick said.