State regulators lower BGE smart meter "opt-out" fee

State regulators lower BGE smart meter "opt-out" fee

Maryland regulators said Tuesday they are concerned about the large numbers of Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. customers in low-income neighborhoods apparently opting not to have smart meters installed, as they ordered the utility to halve the $11 monthly fee charged customers who do not adopt the new technology.

The reduced $5.50 monthly fee is designed to reflect a larger pool of customers sharing the costs of maintaining the old system and will go into effect in January. Tuesday's Public Service Commission order does not alter a separate $75 upfront charge.

About 4 percent of BGE customers have opted out of the new meters — far more than the 1 percent the commission anticipated when it first set the rates.

Those numbers include customers who have actively declined the meters as well as people who have not responded to BGE requests for access to meters on their properties.

Commissioners said they intend to review how long BGE should give people to contact the utility to install a smart meter and get a refund or waiver for previous charges, given the concentration of non-responsive customers in low-income neighborhoods.

Of the roughly 51,600 opt-out customers BGE reported in October, the "vast majority" live in poor communities, commissioner Harold D. Williams wrote in his dissent, which cited numbers provided by BGE to the Office of the People's Counsel, the state's consumer advocate. Less than half actively declined the technology, he wrote.

Commissioner Anne E. Hoskins, who concurred with the majority's order, also wrote separately to say that regulators need to take additional steps to make sure low-income customers are not burdened.

BGE began replacing analog gas and electric meters with wireless smart meters in 2012 and has mostly completed the task. The meters allow the utility to more precisely measure usage and could allow consumers to manage their consumption more efficiently.

The lower fee, which reflects projections that the number of customers without smart meters will fall below current rates, is not as low as some, including Williams, had recommended. BGE did not request a particular rate.

The state's consumer advocate, who called for a monthly fee of about $3.50, said she would have liked a larger reduction, but she expects even the more limited change to return about $2 million per year to customers.

"We were glad to see they made an adjustment," said People's Counsel Paula M. Carmody.

Carmody added that she also believes BGE needs to come up with more creative ways to reach nonresponsive customers.

The current rates were established by a Feb. 2014 commission order. Between Feb. 2014 and July 2015, BGE collected about $6.1 million in opt-out fees, reporting costs of $7.2 million for providing the service.

The commission asked BGE to file quarterly reports about the ongoing revenues and costs associated with opt-out customers.

nsherman@baltsun.com

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