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Cost of not taking a smart meter arrives

Civil and Public ServiceGovernmentEnvironmental PoliticsBaltimore Gas and Electric Co.

As bills go out with the first fees for customers who don't want smart meters, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. is pressing to apply the charges to a much larger group — people the utility says have ignored repeated requests to switch out old meters located indoors or behind locked gates.

About 350,000 customers with inaccessible meters — more than a quarter of BGE's territory — haven't scheduled appointments with contractors despite multiple attempts, the company said. That's preventing installation, but they aren't on the hook for the extra charge now levied on people who ask to opt out of a smart meter.

About 20,000 customers have told BGE they don't want the meters, which wirelessly transmit energy-use data to the company. Opt-out charges will appear on their bills, with the first batch sent out last week: a $75 upfront fee, phased in over three months, plus an $11 monthly fee.

That's the amount Maryland's Public Service Commission believes will cover the extra cost BGE says it will incur to maintain both wireless and analog systems.

While activists in the fight against smart meters dispute the need for a charge, BGE says fairness dictates that customers who haven't opted out but also haven't let contractors in should pay, too. Company officials hope the fee will prod people to make an installation appointment.

"We don't believe these are customers that want to opt out," said Michael Butts, director of BGE's smart grid. "What it really comes down to is customers just have busy lives and getting a meter installed … is not their top priority."

BGE told state regulators in July that the goal of a robust smart grid benefiting consumers "will be in jeopardy" if the response rate doesn't improve. Delays associated with inaccessible meters, largely indoor devices, have added $14 million to project costs so far, the company said.

"BGE is arriving at a point in its smart meter initiative where only inaccessible meters will remain," the company said in a Public Service Commission filing.

Regulators gave BGE the go-ahead in 2010 to install smart meters. Company officials say the devices save money, allowing them to quickly pinpoint outages, forgo in-person meter reading, remotely turn meters on and off as customers move and give consumers more options, such as rebates for reducing electricity use on hot days.

But smart meters have drawn vocal protests locally and across the country.

Some have privacy and security concerns about devices that are controlled remotely and send data out wirelessly. Others worry about health effects from those transmissions. They disagree with industry assurances that the meters are safe — and they're not happy they have to pay to avoid devices they don't want.

Last week Canadian utility SaskPower began removing all 105,000 of its installed smart meters after eight of the devices shorted out or melted for reasons the Saskatchewan government said remain unknown. The manufacturer, Sensus, which does not make the meters BGE uses, blames "external factors" such as utility overvoltage.

BGE said it has not had any smart meter fires.

Most states allowing smart meter opt-outs levy a charge. Maryland's has prompted thousands of BGE customers to take the smart meter they originally hoped to avoid.

Before regulators approved the charge, 34,000 customers asked BGE not to install the device. Now the opt-out list is down to 20,000 customers, a number falling "pretty much every day," Butts said.

Jonathan Libber, president of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness, a group with concerns about the technology, said some residents "are in a horrible situation where they have to opt out because of their health but they can't afford it."

Libber, a retired Environmental Protection Agency attorney, is not among the newly opted in.

"Absolutely we're paying the fee," he said. "I think most of my neighbors are in the same boat — they're going to pay the fee. They don't like it, but they're going to do it."

Del. Glen Glass, a Harford County Republican with smart-meter concerns, said he will try again in the next legislative session to get a bill passed that would allow people to keep their old meters without an additional charge.

He said he opted out but a BGE contractor installed a smart meter in his Aberdeen home anyway. In the 23 days in March before he had it removed, it measured his electricity usage at more than double the amount his replacement, older-style meter registered the next 23 days, he said.

"I'm talking to people all over the place and they're telling me, 'Yeah, my bill's going through the roof,' " Glass said.

Butts said BGE is confident about the accuracy of the meters, which he said are tested by the manufacturers and sample-tested by the utility. He suggested that timing played a role in some cases of reported spikes, with a very hot or cold stretch hitting when the smart meter goes in, increasing electricity usage.

In other cases, the spinning dial in customers' old meters ran slowly and registered less electricity than was actually used, Butts said.

"So some customers — it's a small percentage — could have been undercharged for a while," he said.

BGE, citing customer account confidentiality, declined to comment on Glass' experience.

The worst of last winter's severe weather had passed before his smart meter was installed, though temperatures continued to warm up afterward. Glass said he kept the thermostat low throughout that stretch while temporarily living in Annapolis for the session.

Glass suspects people with indoor meters who haven't responded to BGE don't want the new technology, "and they certainly don't want to be charged."

BGE believes they simply see no reason to prioritize it and might not realize they can request an evening or weekend appointment.

Either way, increasing the number of efforts to contact them hasn't made much of a difference, the company told regulators. BGE said it has an 11-step process, including calls, letters and a visit.

When customers do make an appointment, 20 percent don't keep it, the company said.

It's an unusual situation because most utilities have far lower shares of indoor meters. The devices were installed inside older homes, and BGE is the nation's oldest gas utility.

BGE can only impose the opt-out charge on customers with inaccessible meters if the Public Service Commission approves. When the utility asked to do so last summer, commissioners ordered BGE to increase its communication efforts.

BGE said in its latest request that it would refund the charge if customers called to set up an appointment within 30 days of the date on the first bill, as it will do for people who have formally opted out.

Paula Carmody, who heads the Maryland Office of People's Counsel, which represents residential utility customers, said some customers haven't responded because they simply aren't aware BGE is waiting on them, despite the efforts the company says it is making.

"I don't think it's as simple a matter as 'people don't get around to it,' " she said. "The numbers are rather large."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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