PORT TOWNSEND — The Jefferson County Public Utility District has received a $5.4 million loan to help pay for installation of smart meters and other electric grid upgrades as well as the purchase of a new office building in Glen Cove.
The utility is currently replacing electric meters throughout the county, said Will O’Donnell, PUD broadband and communications director. Some of the older meters are as much as 50 years old.
The loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Electric Infrastructure Loan and Loan Guarantee Program will help the PUD spread out the cost over time, he said.
The loan will be repaid over 30 years, O’Donnell said.
Smart meters send their information directly to a data cloud, allowing the utility to track electrical use without sending its personnel out into the field, O’Donnell said.
“There’s a number of advantages. They give us more insight into how much electricity is being used,” O’Donnell said. “If we’re in an outage situation, they can reduce amount of load. They can prioritize some areas over others.”
Smart meters also can report when customers are experiencing an outage so the utility is informed instantly, rather than having to wait for customers to report an outage. The meters also allow the utility to disconnect power lines remotely, which is helpful in emergency situations such as fires, O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell said installation of smart meters has already begun and the utility hopes to have the project finished by mid-2024.
Some residents have expressed concern about radiation from smart meters. According to the American Cancer Society, smart meters emit similar amounts of radiation as cell phones and home Wi-Fi routers.
In 2018, the meter replacement program was put on hold; the utility allows customers to opt out of the program. The program was taken up again in 2021, which is when the PUD applied for the loan, O’Donnell said.
Older meters transmit data using cellular signals, but that still requires utility workers to travel throughout the county to pick up the signal. Customers who opt out of the smart meter program are charged an additional $5 a month to cover that cost, O’Donnell said.
Smart meters only transmit electrical use data, O’Donnell said, and do not communicate with any smart appliances that may be installed in homes. Some newer appliances come with technology which allows them to communicate with a utility and adjust their electrical use based on the availability of power, but O’Donnell said the PUD does not have that capability.
Customers are able to monitor their electricity use through the utility’s Smarthub app.
The loan — a total of $5,430,000 — includes $4,058,850 for “smart grid” technologies, which, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, includes controls, computers, automation and new technologies and equipment working together with the electrical grid to respond digitally to changing electric demand.
The remainder of the funds — roughly $1.3 million — will help pay for the utility’s purchase of a new office building in Glen Cove, O’Donnell said. It will include a new radio tower and the hub for the PUD’s forthcoming broadband network.
U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer — a Democrat representing Washington’s 6th Congressional District, which covers the Olympic Peninsula and parts of Tacoma — said in a press release the funding will help Jefferson County residents stay connected.
“Importantly, this federal funding means Jefferson County PUD No. 1 can provide more reliable and efficient power without all of the costs falling on the backs of local ratepayers and taxpayers,” Kilmer said. “This is a big win for folks on the Olympic Peninsula.”
Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.