Electricity service plans are looking more like mobile phone plans these days, with free nights, free weekends and prepaid options increasingly available. They are being brought about by digital meters that are replacing the traditional analog meters that have tracked customer power use for the last century. More than half of U.S. electric customers will have digital meters by 2015, up from less than 5 percent in 2008. Here's what's different:
THE OLD WAY
Analog meters click higher as customers use power. A meter reader must come to a house to see how much power a customer has used, and there is no way to tell when the customer used it — during hot afternoons when the price is high or during the middle of the night, when power is nearly free. The customer is charged an average rate.
Digital meters, often called "smart meters," track power use as it is being used and beam that information wirelessly to the utility. The utility doesn't have to send a worker to read the meter or to turn service on or off. The meters also allow companies to offer plans that could help some customers save money if they use power when prices are low. Many electric companies allow customers with digital meters to track their use on a website or through a mobile application.
Experts expect that digital meters will be able to communicate with appliances and click them on or off based on power prices. Some utilities already offer plans that automatically adjust air conditioning use based on prices.
Digital meter installations have raised the ire of some customers concerned about the cost of the meter and privacy.