Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and other utilities in Maryland will make the case to state regulators Tuesday that customers who don't want smart meters should pay an upfront charge and a monthly fee — anywhere from $15 to $87 — to opt out.
Smart-meter opponents are ready to argue that those proposed charges are unreasonably high, considering the costs utilities have borne so far from customers deferring meter installations.
"It doesn't pass the straight-face test," said Jonathan D. Libber, president of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness, which opposes the technology.
It's the latest skirmish in the continuing battle over smart meters, which send energy-use data to utilities wirelessly.
Utilities say the meters save money because they don't have to be read in person, like old-style analog meters, and also allow employees to pinpoint outages faster. Opponents, here and across the country, have health, privacy and other concerns about meters, and they say they shouldn't have a product forced on them.
Customers are allowed to temporarily defer the meters without cost while Maryland's Public Service Commission decides whether to permit a permanent opt out. Commissioners said in January that an alternative — either old-style meters or the option of a smart meter with no or lower levels of radio frequency emissions — would come with charges.
"Whichever option we ultimately choose, we will require those ratepayers that exercise the option to bear appropriate costs," the commissioners wrote.
Smart meters give off radio frequency emissions, a type of radiation also emitted by cellphones. Utilities argue that the meters' emissions are safe, and the commission said it found no "convincing evidence" to the contrary. Smart-meter opponents, pointing to the emissions' classification as possibly carcinogenic, contend they're dangerous.
Both the utilities and the opponents seem to agree on one point: Going with smart meters configured to emit no or lower levels of radio frequency — for instance, by installing a phone jack so the meter doesn't need to communicate its data wirelessly — isn't the right alternative.
Maryland Smart Meter Awareness says customers would have to continually monitor such meters to ensure they weren't emitting radiation. And utilities say the costs are prohibitive.
That would leave existing analog and digital meters as the alternative. BGE is asking to charge an initial fee of $100 — largely to recover administrative and IT system costs — and a monthly fee of $15.
As BGE officials are quick to point out, that charge is the lowest proposed among utilities installing or planning to install smart meters in Maryland.
Pepco and Delmarva Power & Light Co., which have the same parent, proposed a $100 upfront fee and a monthly charge between $50 and $87, depending on the total number of customers opting out. Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative also offered a range of charges depending on participation — about $71 to $105 upfront, and roughly $30 to $35 a month.
Costs range widely in states with the option to forgo a smart meter. Some utilities charge a monthly fee of $10 or less — in California and Nevada, for example — while Portland General Electric in Oregon charges $51. Vermont consumers can opt out for free.
Libber, with Maryland Smart Meter Awareness, said it's simply too early for regulators to determine a fair charge because utilities' "very large" proposed fees are based on cost estimates. The hard numbers from BGE, tracking installation expenses through March, show "virtually no extra costs for accommodating the opt out ratepayers," Libber said in a filing to regulators.
He said he's concerned utilities want to press people into accepting smart meters by making it too costly to do otherwise.
"They obviously know the higher the expense for the opt out, the fewer people will opt out," Libber said.
Mark D. Case, vice president of strategy and regulatory affairs at BGE, said the company took a "fairly conservative approach" to estimating additional costs. The reason the utility hasn't incurred substantial expenses yet is that more costly work such as modifying the billing system is either just now underway or hasn't begun, officials said.
Maryland regulators told utilities that they may not seek to recover smart-meter installation costs until the work is done and they can show the benefits to customers make it worthwhile. Libber said those who opt out should likewise not be charged extra until utilities make that case — if they can make it, he added.
BGE officials say they believe more customers will see the value of smart meters as more of that network goes in. The utility has installed about 550,000 meters and is on track to finish by the end of next year.