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BGE rep grilled on smart meters by Joppa resident

Members of the Joppa/Joppatowne Community Council listen as Robert Oberle of BGE talks about smart meters at the council's April 10 meeting. Oberle answered a number of questions about the controversial meters.
Members of the Joppa/Joppatowne Community Council listen as Robert Oberle of BGE talks about smart meters at the council's April 10 meeting. Oberle answered a number of questions about the controversial meters. (DAVID ANDERSON AEGIS STAFF, The Aegis)

BGE's smart meters are still unpopular with some Harford County residents.

Members of the Joppa/Joppatowne Community Council – as well as audience members – peppered a BGE representative who spoke during their April 7 meeting with multiple comments and questions about issues of concern, especially the utility's smart meters.

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"I just want to try to extend our community outreach efforts," Robert Oberle, principal community relations specialist with BGE, said as he introduced himself.

Oberle, who is a Harford County resident, said he has been working in the county for 22 years, attending community and energy conservation events, but "we want to get our presence up here a little more."

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The meeting was held at the Harford County Sheriff's Office Southern Precinct in Edgewood.

Smart meters, as well as the potential for the BGE Home division to compete with local heating and air conditioning companies, were the major topics of discussion during Oberle's presentation.

The digital smart meters, which allow BGE to monitor customers' power usage and obtain a more accurate picture of how often customers use energy, are being installed at the properties of BGE's residential and commercial customers throughout its service area.

Workers began installing the meters in the spring of 2012 and are continuing the process this year, according to one of several fact sheets about smart meters Oberle provided.

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The meters have been controversial among residents of Harford County and other parts of the state because of concerns about the health impact from the radio signals traveling between the meter and BGE, as well as privacy concerns over how much customer data utility officials could glean from the meters.

Utility officials stated in the fact sheets that the meters "never transmit personally identifiable information," but they do transmit information regarding a customer's energy usage, outages and "tamper alarm alerts."

"You have total control over how, when or where you use your energy," according to the fact sheet.

Oberle also stressed that cell phones put out about "50,000 times the amount of radio frequency" that smart meters do.

"We're looking at probably a total of two minutes transmission a day," he explained. "We're talking six meter readings a day."

Oberle added: "That, to me is one of the big advantages of the smart meter; you'll never get an estimated bill again, because we're getting readings every single day."

He noted that customers can go online and see the previous day's usage.

"I'm viewing this as a two-way communication tool," he said.

Although customers can opt out of having a smart meter installed in their home, which was supported by a Feb. 26 ruling by the Maryland Public Service Commission, Joppa council member Ron Sollod said installers threatened to call police three weeks ago if he did not allow them to install the meter on his house.

Sollod also said he did not know the installers were coming – Oberle stressed BGE will typically send a postcard or letter in advance of an installation.

Sollod said he wanted to opt out of getting a smart meter installed until he had more information about the meters, and he had contacted the utility about opting out.

"These guys were very adamant that they were going to call the police or the sheriff's office if I didn't let them install it on my house," he said.

Oberle was surprised by Sollod's account.

"That's not the way it's supposed to work," he said.

Oberle said customers can opt out, but they must pay charges to do so; they must pay a "one-time" $75 and then $11 each month thereafter, according to the BGE website.

Customers can contact BGE via telephone, mail or online to opt out.

Audience member Chris Boardman, who is also a Democratic candidate for Harford County Council president – one of nine political candidates at the meeting, asked Oberle about BGE Home.

BGE Home is not a division of the BGE utility, but it is an entity of BGE's parent company, Exelon, along with Constellation.

"It's a completely independent company," BGE spokeswoman Rachael Lighty said Tuesday. "However, it falls under the umbrella of our parent company."

BGE Home offers services such as heating and air conditioning sales and service, plus home improvements such as doors, windows and insulation, according to its website.

Boardman said he has heard from local heating and air conditioning contractors who feel BGE Home has an "unfair advantage" in the marketplace.

"It seems that the BGE is, or was, a publicly-regulated utility, and it's gotten out into so many other areas that I just have to wonder... some of these things are regulated but not very many," he commented.

Oberle acknowledged that "the only thing that's regulated is this [energy] distribution piece, our pipes and wires."

He also touched on the unregulated services, such as buying gas or electricity from another supplier, and the "contractor services."

"In my mind they've got to be competitive, otherwise they're going out of business," he said, "I'm not aware of any behind-the-scenes support that BGE would give them."

Oberle also encouraged those at the meeting to pick up a copy of what he called the "purple book," or BGE's 2013-2014 Community Resource Guide.

"This is basically the bible of all the social agencies in town," he said.

Customers can use the guide to find resources in Harford County to provide assistance with their energy bills.

Copies can be obtained by calling 1-800-685-0123.

Paula Mullis, chairperson of the community council, thanked Oberle for visiting.

"We have heard a lot of misconceptions, so I'm glad you're able to address some of those," she said.

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