Failures Beset ‘Smart’ Meter Roadshow

By Published On: December 14, 2012

Nearly a year after the California Public Utilities Commission allowed customers to turn in their “smart” digital meters and return to analog meter service, regulators set public meetings around the state to explain the opt-out program. The ability to opt out of smart meter installations was made possible by a February 2012 decision by regulators. Beginning in Bakersfield Dec. 13, hearings also will be held in Santa Barbara on Dec. 14, Los Angeles on Dec. 17, San Clemente on Dec. 18, and Santa Rosa Dec. 20. Commission staff and relevant utilities are set to lay out the costs of energy without “smart” meters, and, conversely, the perceived advantages of a digital meter. The digital meter program was a grand scheme the commission launched in July 2006 when it allowed Pacific Gas & Electric to invest $1.7 billion in proprietary digital meters. The meters were basically a beta test for “smart” meters across the nation. PG&E’s meter communications are limited--they don’t jibe with meters from other utilities, and they cannot read two-way input like that from rooftop solar, for instance. After PG&E’s initial foray, regulators approved $1.63 billion for Southern California Edison in 2008, $572 million for San Diego Gas & Electric in 2008, and $1.05 billion for SoCal Gas in 2010. As of October, more than 10 million digital meters are installed in the state. Six years ago, the commission announced California’s foray into digital meters with great aplomb, claiming the following: -They “give consumers greater control of their energy use.” -They “allow for faster outage detection and restoration of service.” -They facilitate “time-of-use rates.” -They “allow customers to make informed decisions by providing highly detailed information.” -They “help the environment” because with shaping peak use fewer fossil fuel plants are expected to be built--an estimated 448 MW. -They “increase privacy.” The commission promised meters would return far more than the $5 billion total invested in the program in savings. The only claim of the commission that’s been borne out the last six years is that digital meters save utilities money because they employ far fewer meter readers, according to utilities’ financial statements. Outage detection may be a bonus too, but there are little or no data to back up that claim. Energy use “control” is limited to those who invest personal funds into home area networks to read and manage use on top of the meters (Current, Oct. 26, 2012). The commission, Oct. 1, ruled that utilities revise their home area network implementation plans to “ensure statewide consistency” in communications. Time-of-use rates, or dynamic pricing, are still unavailable for most of consumers. A cleaner environment with fewer fossil plants remains a goal, but is now somewhat thwarted by the grid’s requirement of more fossil plants for renewables integration. The commission dragged utility customers into a digital meter world with some kicking and screaming. Regulators only adopted an opt-out program after more than a year of relentless public comment urging they be allowed to reject digital meters. Some complained of headaches. Some said they had to move out of homes to protect their health. Some reported fires and some were clad in tin foil to drive home the point. Several cities and counties threw their municipal weight against being forced to accept digital meters. Reluctantly, the commission allowed opt-outs at an initial fee of $75, plus an ongoing $10/month. There’s also a little-publicized move for those who opted out to not pay the opt-out portion of their bills, while still paying on the primary energy amount. To date, there’s no record of customer service shut downs because of non-payments (Current, Sept. 7, 2012). “As bad as the extortionate and punitive smart meter ‘opt-out’ fee policy seems at the moment, utilities in California are pressuring the CPUC to increase the fees, and take away the choice of an analog meter, forcing us to pay hundreds of dollars/year for a digital ‘radio off’ meter with many of the same problems as the ‘smart’ meter,” complained the organization StopSmartMeters this week. Based in a stronghold of anti-digital meter sentiment in Marin and Sonoma Counties, the organization plans to dog the commission’s public meetings this week to drive home it’s free analog meter point.

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