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Upfront, monthly fees required to opt out of smart meters

Maryland regulators said Wednesday that utility customers who don't want a smart meter will need to pay both upfront and monthly to forgo the technology, though the fees are lower than utilities sought.

The fees will appear on bills after July 1 for customers who ask to keep their analog or older digital meters. All will be charged an initial fee of $75, the state Public Service Commission said, with monthly fees varying by utility.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers would pay the lowest monthly fee, $11. The company had asked for a $15 monthly charge and a $100 upfront fee.

"In this Order, we allocate to these opt-out customers the appropriate costs associated with their choice," wrote the majority of the five commissioners. "We have attempted to mitigate the fees for opting out to ensure that it remains a viable, and not just theoretical, option for customers."

One commissioner disagreed. Former BGE executive Harold D. Williams wrote in his dissent that the fees "will fall disproportionately on some customers," particularly those who are poor or live on fixed incomes.

Smart meters send energy-use data to utilities wirelessly. Utilities say the technology allows them to save money and time by rapidly pinpointing outages, eliminating manual meter reading and the like, and also gives customers more information to manage their energy costs.

But the meters have drawn heated opposition across the country. Though utilities and regulators say the meters are safe, some customers disagree, and others have privacy concerns. Maryland smart meter opponents argue that they shouldn't be required to pay to avoid having a product forced on them.

More than 30,000 Maryland utility customers asked to defer smart meter installation while they waited for regulators to decide on a plan for opt-outs. Most of the deferrals are in BGE's territory, nearly 2.5 percent of that company's customer base.

Jonathan Libber, president of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness, a group for people worried about the technology, said the fees will be unaffordable for some who want to opt out. But getting any opt-out "is a major, major step forward," he said.

BGE is reviewing the decision and will tell customers about "next steps for those who do not want a smart meter," said spokeswoman Rachael Lighty in an email.

Three of the state regulatory agency's five commissioners agreed on the fees. One, Anne Hoskins, abstained because the fee hearing preceded her time on the board.

Williams, who dissented, said he supports the decision to bring smart meters to Maryland. It's the charge to opt out that he's unhappy about. Though some states require their residents pay if they forgo smart meters, at least one — Vermont — bars such fees, he noted.

Given the concerns some have, "I find imposing such additional costs on opt-out customers even more egregious," Williams wrote. He thought it would be more appropriate to address the issue in a rate case after utilities show what costs they've incurred, "rather than the highly speculative costs that have been presented."

The commissioners in the majority said their decision was consistent with rulings "by every state public utility commission that has addressed this issue before us."

Vermont's fee ban came from its legislature.

Two bills pending in Maryland's General Assembly would essentially prohibit additional charges for opting out.

Under Wednesday's order, customers who already told their utility they do not want a smart meter will not have to opt out again. They can opt in by July 1 to avoid the fees, the commission said.

Customers who have a smart meter but wish to opt out can do so by telling their utility, the commission ruled. And opt-out customers in neighborhoods where the meters aren't due to arrive until after July 1 cannot be charged until after the installations occur.

Tens of thousands of customers, meanwhile, haven't said they don't want a smart meter but also haven't responded to give the utility access to their indoor meters.

"This is something that over the next several months needs to be addressed," said Paula Carmody, who heads the Maryland Office of People's Counsel, which represents residential utility customers.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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