Behold the humble electric meter. Until recently, it has traditionally had one principal purpose: record your power use so your local utility can send you an accurate bill. But the meter’s role is changing, and you and the town you live in could gain some important benefits.

The changing role of the electric meter is coming through what’s known in the utility world as “Advanced Metering Infrastructure,” more commonly called “smart meters.” Smart meters have joined smart phones, homes, cars and countless other devices that can make life better in many ways. However, smart meters don’t just deliver convenience; they promise greater reliability and improved customer service, as well.

Consider the logistical challenges of restoring power after a storm. One of the most difficult tasks, and one that can result in long restoration times, is identifying exactly where power may still be out once large areas are restored. Customer reports help, but in many cases customers may not be home or able to communicate.

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With smart meters, the utility will be connected to – and able to communicate with – all of its customers on a two-way basis. Through this safe, secure system, the utility will know when and where power is out without the customer doing a thing. The right number and types of restoration crews can be dispatched automatically to exactly the right locations. This is a tremendous advantage that can save critical time and reduce operating costs, keeping bills reasonable.

For a town that has been hit hard by a storm, the benefits can be immense: Businesses get back up and running more quickly, minimizing or avoiding lost sales, lost wages and lost tax revenues. Fast and efficient power restoration can also minimize disruptions to schools, town events, construction projects, and more.

The benefits of smart meters accrue to communities all day, every day, even without a Superstorm Sandy-sized event. Smart meters can detect power-quality and even unsafe conditions at the home and alert the utility that something’s brewing. This kind of as-it-happens intelligence can help avoid neighborhood-wide disruptions and the difficulties that accompany them. Usage data also can help engineers determine where infrastructure upgrades are needed and when they should be made, reducing planning time and conserving resources.

Today, more than 70 million customers in virtually every state experience the benefits of smart meters. Only West Virginia, Rhode Island and New Jersey have yet to approve widespread availability of smart meters for their utility customers.

It’s time to say farewell to the traditional electric meter and welcome the efficiency, safety and reliability these smart devices can bring to communities everywhere.