MANATEE -- Florida's largest electric utility will begin phasing smart meters into Manatee next month, one of the last remaining areas in its initiative to bring the technology to 35 Florida counties.
Florida Power and Light crews will begin installing the digital meters with all 167,000 customers in Manatee County on Dec. 3 in a process that will take about three months to complete.
"We're in the final stretch," FPL spokeswoman Elaine Hinsdale said Thursday. "All of our customers, both business and residential, will have the new meters."
FPL rolled out the $800 million smart meter plan in 2009, when the utility began a pilot study to test the technology in Miami-Dade -- its largest metro hub.
The company has been gradually bringing the service to its customers with help from a $200 million Department of Energy grant.
FPL began the transition with 248,000 customers in Sarasota County in September, a process that should be complete by Christmas.
Manatee County is the last stop on the Gulf Coast before FPL begins installation in Northeast Florida, which will complete the phase out.
By April 2013, FPL expects to conclude upgrades of the electric meters for 4.5 million customers.
The new meters were designed so usage no longer has to be read manually, allowing FPL to better predict and prevent outages, restore power faster and access the grid remotely. It also is considered more environmentally friendly, Hinsdale said.
The smart meters even will allow consumers to access their power usage online by the hour, day or month.
"We're hoping by giving that information to our customers, they too will have smart decisions about their energy usage," Hinsdale said. "That visibility is a very positive tool."
FPL's smart meter initiative is just one example of a growing trend by utilities to turn to more digital capabilities.
About 36 million homes -- almost one-third of U.S.
households -- now have a smart meter. In the next three years, that tally is expected to widen to 65 million, according to the Institute for Electric Efficiency.
Although the new technology eliminates the jobs of manual meter readers, new technology positions will be created, so FPL doesn't expect any massive layoffs, Hinsdale said.
Still, many area consumers have written and called Manatee County commissioners to express concerns with the new system, mainly citing privacy issues.
The new meters became part of a discussion between commissioners at a recent county meeting as well as a Port Manatee meeting Thursday.
"It centers around health and privacy issues," Commissioner Donna Hayes said. "However, I will say FPL is doing a very good job in letting everybody opt out. As far as I'm concerned, I think it's a good move and a step in the right direction."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman