Electric meters.
Electric meters. Credit: Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury

In Dominion Energy’s quest to get regulators to approve the large-scale rollout of smart meters to Virginia customers, the fourth time was the charm. 

Friday, after three earlier rejections, the Virginia State Corporation Commission signed off on a proposal by the electric utility to replace roughly 1.1 million existing meters with newer technology that can allow customers to adjust their energy usage based on real-time data. 

The project, which was included in the utility’s latest Grid Transformation Plan, will cost $198.3 million and bring Dominion close to a full deployment of smart meters in Virginia by 2023. Replacement of the final 250,000 to 300,000 existing non-smart meters will be proposed as part of the company’s next plan, which would lead to full deployment by 2024. 

Augustus Johnson, Dominion’s director of electric distribution grid solutions, called smart meters — formally known as advanced metering infrastructure — a “fundamental building block” of the utility’s grid transformation efforts. 

With them, “we’ll be able to offer all of our customers faster storm service connections, greater information and options to manage their usage and bill and streamline the integration of distributed energy resources like solar panels and battery storage at their homes,” he said. 

Dominion has been vying for SCC approval of its plans to deploy smart meters across its entire Virginia territory since the General Assembly approved the Grid Transformation and Security Act in 2018. 

The utility has contended that as it modernizes the electric grid, smart meters will provide the data needed to integrate an increasing number of distributed energy resources like rooftop solar panels and electric vehicles. In addition to letting the utility track customers’ energy use electronically, smart meters can provide information to customers themselves, allowing them to adjust their usage and potentially take advantage of innovative electric rates designed to drive down use at times of peak demand. 

Dominion has been steadily replacing its older meters, known as automated meter reading or AMR devices, since 2008. As of the end of November, it had deployed 1.2 million within the Virginia system, with recent efforts focusing on Petersburg, parts of Southside and Hampton Roads, and the eastern portion of Richmond. 

But regulators have been reluctant to sign off on the costs of a coordinated system-wide deployment. 

The State Corporation Commission
 The State Corporation Commission regulates Virginia electric utilities. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

The SCC twice denied smart meter proposals in Dominion’s Grid Transformation plans and in April 2020 again rejected the utility’s request to reconsider its latest denial. In a formal order, the commissioners said they believed the potential benefits of Dominion’s proposed smart meter rollout were “too speculative and uncertain for the commission to choose to approve such a large expenditure at this time, the large costs of which impact Dominion’s customers.” 

In the most recent plan approved by the SCC Friday, environmental and consumer protection nonprofit Appalachian Voices had argued that regulators should condition their approval of the smart meter rollout on the utility taking several other steps, such as offering customers a rebate for reducing electricity usage on days when demand has hit a critical peak. 

The commission turned down that suggestion, however and approved the rollout plan as a whole, pointing to other steps Dominion has taken to justify a broader deployment. 

In particular, the SCC cited the utility’s new time-of-use rate, a type of electric rate designed to incentivize customers to decrease their electricity usage at times of peak demand and shift energy-intensive activities like vehicle charging to off-peak times. Not only does Dominion now offer an experimental TOU rate, said the commission, but it has “provided a timeline for system-wide implementation” of such rates. 

The commission had previously criticized the utility for not incorporating time-of-use rates into its smart meter plans, saying that Dominion had “failed to submit a comprehensive proposal” to roll them out across its territory even while asking customers to pick up the costs of smart meters. 

Other reasons proffered by the SCC in support of their approval this Friday included declining vendor support for existing meters, as well as that technology’s “functional limitations.”  

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