Goodbye Whidbey meter readers

"A new electric metering system spreading across Whidbey Island will give both consumers and Puget Sound Energy an exact idea of who is using electricity when. It could also allow the company to bill at a higher rate during “peak” hours.Stemming from a 412,000 customer pilot program, all of Whidbey Island’s PSE customers will soon be hooked into a computerized metering system that will make human meter readers obsolete and will allow PSE and its customers to monitor peak power usage right down to the individual household or business. PSE vice president Sue McLain said automated meter readers have already been installed on much of Whidbey, and sometime during the next six months the company will also begin installing computerized monitoring devices.Karl Kirn, a PSE media relations manager, said the monitors will allow his company to track power usage on individual meters in 15 minute intervals, as well as connect and disconnect electric customers from a single location. Connect and disconnect service is currently done manually.While Kirn acknowledged that the system could be used like a telephone billing system, in which higher rates are applied to hours when the phone company experiences a higher call volume, he said that’s not PSE’s present intention. The company hopes customers use the detailed electric bills generated by the new system to use less electricity during peak hours. However, Dorothy Bracken, another member of PSE’s corporate communications department, said that the company might well start billing at a higher rate during peak times and at a lower rate for off-peak power. When that will happen is a question the company is still asking itself.“We don’t know ourselves,” Bracken said.The new bills will show households and businesses how they use power during four periods over the course of the day. Ideally, if electric customers reduce peak electric usage, PSE would not need to buy expensive peak power on the open market. It could also reduce the amount of time the company and its power suppliers need to run its generators.“It needs to be like learning to recycle,” McClain said. “It’s good for the environment and an opportunity to save money.”Saving money might be the critical point for most customers. McLain said electricity prices are skyrocketing for many Western Washington customers, with utilities bumping the price up anywhere between 14 and 43 percent within the past month.PSE increased its rates by 1.5 percent on Jan. 1. McLain said PSE is not suffering the same sort of losses other area utilities are racking up due to the soaring price of peak power purchased on the open market. She said the company’s generating capacity, plus power purchased on long-term contracts, should satisfy customers’ needs through 2002. Cutting power use during weekly peaks on Monday mornings and on weeknights between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. could allow the company to keep its rates low longer, she said.Bracken said if even 10 percent of PSE’s electricity customers do their dishwashing, clotheswashing, and other electricity-intense activities during off-peak hours, the move could save 200 megawatts of power every year. That is enough power to make it unnecessary to build one new, petroleum-burning power plant. "

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