Hawaii's Smart Electric Meters Are Stuck In The Past - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Robert Lee

Robert Lee is a 2022 fellow of the Clean Energy Leadership Institute in the Bay Area cohort. He recently joined Stow Energy (a spinoff of Otherlab) to build thermal storage technology for home heating, cooling and hot water. Lee previously worked for Apple and is a graduate of Punahou School in Honolulu.

It honestly surprised me when my dad had a smart electric meter installed on his house in Nuuanu, as he’s never considered himself to be an early tech adopter. But as of 2021, only 31% of Hawaii Electric’s residential electric meters on Oahu are using smart meter technology.

Opinion article badge

Across the United States, 70% of all electric meters are designated as AMI, or smart meters that support “advanced metering infrastructure.” Comparing this to electric providers in Hawaii, the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative is above average at over 95% advanced metering infrastructure adoption, but their smaller customer pool is ahead of the renewables game as a special case.

But total statewide advanced metering infrastructure only totals 41%. Smart meters are therefore a minority in the islands, making up less than two-thirds the national average.

Closing the smart meter gap is a critical part of modernizing Hawaii’s electrical grid. In the past, low expectations and community misgivings have dampened the demand for more installations. But recent price shocks and blackouts have raised awareness about measuring electricity usage carefully, and the state must do everything it can to make energy leaner and greener to meet its 2030 and 2045 goals for renewable energy.

Robert Lee graphic 1 for Nov 2022 CV

Hawaii needs to start installing smart meters faster than ever — and customers need to know how to benefit from them.

Over the past decade, California and Hawaii have seen an incredible rise in solar power capacity. When the sun is up, customers who own solar panels don’t need to draw energy from the grid, causing a drop in demand for grid resources.

But once sunset arrives, demand on the grid spikes up until the day is finally over.

If you use your imagination, the mid-day demand sag looks like a duck’s belly, and the spike at sunset is like a duck’s head — so the total phenomenon is commonly known as the “duck curve.”  (Hawaiian Electric previously chose to call it the Nessie curve — a missed opportunity to choose a native species instead.)

Robert Lee graphic 2 for Nov 2022 CV

Utilities can use the fine-grained energy usage data from smart meters to balance the supply and demand forces that make up the duck curve, and to forecast where the curve will be going. Without smart meters providing this data in real time, costly errors can happen when supply and demand don’t line up. For example, blackouts occur when the grid can’t provide enough energy to meet demand at its peak.

On the other hand, it’s possible to have too little demand for an oversupply of solar energy mid-day, in which case the excess energy must be wasted in a process called curtailment. Therefore, the utility is motivated to somehow shift energy demand away from peak hours, ideally into the off-peak mid-day period to take advantage of abundant solar energy.

This is why Hawaiian Electric would be motivated to have more of its customers, including my dad, have smart meters installed at no charge. Customers have ways to benefit from having smart meters as well — but at least in Hawaiian Electric’s case, they’ve hardly taken advantage of them.

Where I live in California, nearly every home has a smart meter, and we use them every day to determine how much we pay for electricity under time-of-use (TOU) billing. Instead of paying for electricity at a flat rate per kilowatt-hour, we’re charged more for using power during peak hours (4 to 9 p.m.) and less at any other hour.

On the website of my utility provider — PG&E, or Pacific Gas and Electric — they also have a feature called Green Button that lets me download my own smart meter data, which I can use to understand when my house uses the most power so I can figure out how to lower my bill for next month.

Back in Hawaii, Hawaiian Electric customers with smart meters can opt into TOU billing and Green Button downloads too, but according to their customer engagement reports, only a tiny fraction of customers are using these features out of the existing minority of AMI users.

Robert Lee graphic 3 for Nov 2022 CV

To try these features out, I asked my dad to log in to Hawaiian Electric’s energy portal website and download his Green Button data. Once we got his data, we found out something was using up several kilowatt-hours at the same time every afternoon. After seeing the problem, we figured out he had a bad timer set up on his solar water heater, causing it to start heating up water right as the sun was going down.

Without having the smart meter data, we wouldn’t have found the issue, but if he never checked the data and blindly moved to a TOU plan his bill would have increased significantly. As more customers receive smart meters, they should be encouraged to engage with their data as a low-cost way of auditing their energy efficiency, and consider trying out one of Hawaiian Electric’s TOU billing plans.

After learning more about why he got a smart meter and what it can do, my dad appreciated having a new tool to check on his electric usage and find ways to save money. But I’m not sure when my other friends and relatives back at home will be getting their own smart meters to play with.

From my perspective living with smart meters on the mainland every day, it’s more important than ever for locals to know the role smart meters play to help the electric company manage the supply and demand, especially as Hawaii decommissions fossil fuel plants and moves towards 100% renewable energy.

Locals need smart meters to help guide their individual decisions on power consumption. Using better data to move power demand off-peak will improve grid resilience while saving everyone money.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

Read this next:

Catherine Toth Fox: The Overgrown Ruins Of Waialee Have Great Potential

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Robert Lee

Robert Lee is a 2022 fellow of the Clean Energy Leadership Institute in the Bay Area cohort. He recently joined Stow Energy (a spinoff of Otherlab) to build thermal storage technology for home heating, cooling and hot water. Lee previously worked for Apple and is a graduate of Punahou School in Honolulu.

Latest Comments (0)

Unless the data is important to you, keep your old meters. HECO has already conceded that customers with older meters are likely paying lower rates (or less than their fair share), because the meters slow down over time. Time of Use rates are mostly useless and HECO should stop patting itself on the back about it. For the vast majority of electrical users like me with normal jobs and lives, the ToU rate schedule would significantly raise my bill. Maybe it makes sense if I work nights or have a vacant home most of the year.

rs84 · 10 months ago

Don’t agree w/need for smart meters. Peak demand in early evening is a no brainer: families are home— dinners, baths, homework, electronics. How does HECO change that? What they can do is shut off power at their discretion, when in the middle of cooking dinner. Used to be public service announcements. What happened to those? HECO could give energy saving tips on how to conserve energy or spread out use time to lessen grid peak demand. One tip is to install a switch instead of a timer to control water heater on times manually to fine tune with needs.

kateinhi · 10 months ago

"In a landmark order that could set the tone for electricity rates across the country, the state Public Utilities Commission has ordered Hawaiian Electric to transform its existing power rate structure into one that better acknowledges the growing use of renewable energy" Star AdvertiserLooks like there's a chance that HECO will be forced to change the way it formulates its billing due to the increasing alternative power generation sources.

Joseppi · 10 months ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.