After several years of hype, North Carolina will debut a true "smart meter" this year that lets customers adjust thermostats from an iPhone or any other Internet portal.
Based on initial testing, the feature is expected to save the customers about 6.5 percent on their monthly power bills.
But to benefit from the interactive utility feature you have to be a customer of tiny Wake Electric Membership Corp., the state's first utility to offer this kind of smart grid feature for its customers.
This spring, Wake Electric will start offering its 34,500 customers in seven counties the Monitor and Manage Program. The utility -- which serves parts of Wake, Durham and Johnston counties -- will let customers operate major appliances remotely and also check their household electricity usage on a real-time basis.
Don Bowman, Wake Electric's manager of engineering, said the feature will let a customer adjust or turn off a water heater, or adjust heating or air conditioning, without getting out of bed, if the customer has a iPhone, iPad or other similar device.
"Anything you can do in front of the thermostat you can do remotely over the Web portal," Bowman said. "You can set comfort levels, preferences and times."
Such "smart" features are expected to be standard for all utility customers, but it will be at least a decade before they're in common use. They are broadly part of the smart grid revolution that will eventually replace the nation's aging electro-mechanical power grid with a digital, computeraized system that's more efficient.
Progress Energy and Duke Energy, the state's two largest power companies, in recent years spent millions of dollars replacing their utility meters with digital meters that can be read from a passing automobile, and the two companies have little incentive to spend millions of dollars again to do another meter upgrade.
It's widely accepted by utility operators that most homeowners have very little interest in tinkering with gadgets that control thermostats and power supply.
Wake Electric's Monitor and Manage Program will cost $9.95 a month, and only about 5 percent to 10 percent of Wake Electric's customers are expected to sign up.
The typical monthly bill for a Wake Electric household is $178 a month, based on an average usage of 1,400 kilowatt hours of electricity. So a 6.5 percent savings would come to $11.57 each month.
That average savings is more than the monthly fee Wake Electric will charge for the service, but households that use more energy would potentially save more.
Wake Electric is using technology designed by Raleigh-based Consert, a 55-employee company that upgrades utility meters with two-way radio communication.
In addition to Wake Electric, Consert has also tested its technology with the Fayetteville Public Works Commission and the Jones-Onslow Electric Cooperative.
Retrofitting utility meters with Consert's technology costs about $400 per meter, Bowman said.
To date, the most advanced smart meter service in the state has been offered by Piedmont Electric Membership Corp., a rural cooperative with 31,000 customers. The Piedmont service is free and gives customers daily readings of household energy usage, but it does not let customers control thermostats or water heaters remotely.
Wake Electric also plans to give all its customers a free service that will provide household energy readings every hour. Those who pay the $9.95 monthly fee will get real-time readings, equivalent to looking at their utility meter, except that the readinngs will also be broken down by house zones and by major appliances.