`Smart' Power Meters May Help Conserve Precious Juice

To feed America's growing energy appetite during peak hours, utilities may spend billions on new power plants over the next five years. They would like to limit plant construction by enticing homeowners to shift consumption to off-peak hours. But creating incentives, such as variable pricing, requires much closer monitoring of usage patterns.

That's why power companies are rushing to automate everything--from meter reading to monitoring outages. To help, Cellnet Data Systems Inc. in San Carlos, Calif., has created an "intelligent" network system linking thousands of meters and power lines to a power company's computer network via low-cost radio transmitters. Data flow between the transmitters and a central computer that tracks consumption and signals power-line outages. Cellnet is working with Georgia Power Co. and Northern States Power Co. in Minneapolis. It just signed a contract to bring Kansas City Power & Light Co.'s 420,000 customers on-line by the end of 1996.

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