BGE smart meter

BGE says about 20,000 customers whose meters are indoors haven't responded to calls, door-to-door visits or other contacts. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / March 15, 2012)

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. can't install smart meters for some customers because they don't want the technology, but the utility also faces a logistical challenge in tens of thousands of other cases: There's no way to get to the old meter to switch it out.

BGE said it has about 200,000 customers whose meters are indoors and who haven't responded to calls, door-to-door visits or other contacts — neither making an appointment nor asking to opt out of the new meter.

"Of course, out of that 200,000, we are making appointments and installing meters and driving that number down," BGE spokesman Aaron Koos said by email. "Then as we move in to new neighborhoods, we encounter new waves of customers who aren't available on the first contacts, so the number continues to hover at approximately 200,000."

Indoor meters aren't a big issue in a typical smart-meter rollout, simply because there aren't enough of them. But half of BGE's gas and electric meters are indoors, a "very high percentage" compared with other utilities in the region and nationally, said Rhea Lewis Marshall, a BGE spokeswoman.

She attributed that to BGE's status as the country's oldest gas utility and one of the oldest electric utilities. Homes built generations ago are more likely than a newer home to have a gas or electric meter inside.

"When you have 50 percent of your customer [meters] indoors, that's a significant challenge," said Ted Fiala, vice president of business development at Grid One Solutions, one of BGE's installation contractors.

The issue for the customers who aren't responding: It could cost them.

BGE customers who opt out of smart meters — which wirelessly send energy-use data back to the company — will be hit with a $75 one-time fee and an $11 monthly charge as soon as July. BGE has asked the Maryland Public Service Commission, its regulator, to treat indoor-meter customers who don't respond as opt-outs.

BGE, which expects the majority of its smart meters will be in place by December, estimated last year that inaccessible meters would increase deployment costs by $4 million.

In its request to the PSC, the company said its opt-out proposal was preferable to turning customers' power off, "which BGE sees as a last but potentially necessary step, if all other attempts at contact fail."

"Currently, a customer can ignore BGE's communications without consequence, which has led to indifference," BGE said in its petition.

PSC commissioners ruled last fall that BGE had to "significantly" increase its communication efforts first, and then they would decide on next steps.

Marshall said BGE is due to report back in June.

Installation typically takes a few minutes, she said, and it doesn't need to be done during usual work hours. The company's contractors make evening and Saturday appointments, too.

BGE also is scheduling weekend "installation blitzes" in areas where technicians have had problems getting in. Marshall said the utility gives customers a heads-up by phone, email and social media that a blitz is coming, she said.

A recent event in the Dundalk and Canton areas got technicians access to the majority of indoor meters they couldn't get to before, Marshall said.

"So we're planning to do more of these installation blitzes around Baltimore City, which is where customers primarily have indoor meters," she said.

Paula Carmody, who heads the Maryland Office of People's Counsel, charged with representing residential utility customers, thinks most who haven't responded aren't avoiding a smart meter on purpose. They're busy or haven't been paying attention, she said.

She's concerned about that.

"They may end up paying a fee down the line unintentionally," Carmody said. "Bottom line, we strongly encourage our BGE customers to look out for … any written materials or postcards or emails from BGE about smart meter installations in their neighborhood and not to ignore them."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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