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News Opinion Editorial

Smart meter apathy [Editorial]

The smart meter conspiracy theorists are no doubt buoyed by the news that BGE has been unable to secure appointments to replace the old, analog meters in the homes of some 350,000 customers. But there is no reason to think this reflects some groundswell of opposition to the new technology; on the contrary, it is a clear outlier when it comes to other smart meter installation projects across the nation and even within Maryland. The smart meter conversions for Pepco and Delmarva, for example, are 99 percent complete with opt-out rates of well less than 1 percent.

What's going on here is that BGE faces a more difficult task than most utilities in that a large percentage of its meters are inside customers' homes, rather than outside, and the company thus needs to get permission to swap out the new meters. Utility officials say they have made extensive efforts to contact those customers but have not gotten responses. They are now asking the Public Service Commission to allow the company to charge fees to customers who have not responded just as they charge fees for customers who opt out. Ultimately, that may be necessary, but we are not quite at that point yet.

Some customers were angered that the PSC is allowing opt-out fees in general, and those objections were intensified by the amount of the fees: a $75 one-time charge, plus $11 a month. But such fees are standard for smart meter installation projects, for good reason. Smart meters eliminate the need for a utility to employ meter readers. If some customers retain the old technology, the company will still have to maintain that service, and the per-meter cost of reading a scattering of analog meters from the few who opt out will be sky-high. Opt-out customers raise the cost of the utility system, and the other customers should not be required to foot the bill.

That's why the Office of the People's Counsel, ordinarily a diligent skeptic when it comes to BGE's requests and of surcharges on customers' bill in particular, did not object to the opt-out fee in principle or in its amount. The charge was set at a level that the PSC believes will account for the increased costs to the system as a result of the remaining analog meters, and it is in line with (and often less than) what has been experienced in other states. For that matter, BGE's fees are lower than those of any of three other Maryland utilities that are converting to smart meters. And the commission will eventually get the chance to review the actual costs incurred and to adjust the fees as necessary.

In principle, the same logic applies to customers without smart meters whether they have actively opted out or have simply not responded to BGE's request that they set up an appointment. The costs to the system will go up either way, and those who have new meters will wind up paying more than they should if a quarter of the company's customer base remains on the old technology. And subjecting non-responsive customers to an opt-out fee certainly beats the alternative method BGE could seek to employ to get their attention: shutting off the power.

But before the commission authorizes fees, it needs to take a close look at how effectively BGE has been getting out the message to those customers who have not responded to the company's communications about smart meters. BGE says it has a multi-step process it follows to try to get its customers with indoor meters to schedule appointments, but details like how many of those customers have never responded at all versus those who have simply not successfully scheduled an upgrade should be important to the commission's analysis.

More broadly, BGE has not adequately communicated the benefits of smart meters for customers — primarily, that they will help keep electric distribution costs down and will enable faster and more efficient restoration of service after power outages. Without a sufficiently robust marketing campaign from the utility, opponents have muddled the issue in the public's mind with unfounded claims about the health risks of the meters (they transmit data for about two minutes a day and emit far less radiation than microwaves, WiFi networks and cell phones), the privacy implications of the devices (they let the utility know how much energy a home is using at a particular time but not what appliances are being used), and their accuracy. The notion that the company is conspiring to install meters that inflate energy usage readings makes no sense since BGE no longer makes money based on how much electricity customers use.

As an older utility with an unusually large number of indoor meters, BGE faced a more difficult challenge than most companies that have made the transition to this new technology. As such, some patience is in order. But at some point, if the number of unresponsive customers stays high, the PSC will need to implement fees on them. It's only fair to everyone else.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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