Uh-oh, another local backlash against the installation of smart meters — and this time it’s not in Bakersfield, Calif., the home of the original smart meter lawsuit that rattled utilities nationwide late last year. The Dallas Morning News (hat tip Green Inc) reports that “hundreds” of […]

Uh-oh, another local backlash against the installation of smart meters — and this time it’s not in Bakersfield, Calif., the home of the original smart meter lawsuit that rattled utilities nationwide late last year. The Dallas Morning News (hat tip Green Inc) reports that “hundreds” of Texans who received smart meters in Oncor’s service territory are complaining about the accuracy of the meters after receiving unusually high energy bills after the meters were installed.

State Senator Troy Fraser, (R) also chairman of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, asked the Texas Public Utility Commission to call for a halt of the meter installations and to start an independent audit. The PUC tells The Dallas Morning News that it hopes to hire an auditor within the next two weeks to review the meters’ accuracy, but no word on whether Oncor will slow down its deployment. (We’ve reached out to Oncor and are waiting to hear back).

The situation in Texas sounds very similar to that of Bakersfield — from both a utility and a consumer perspective. In the Bakersfield case, utility PG&E actually did end up slowing down its smart meter deployment in the area and looked to hire an independent auditor to test the accuracy of the meters. Both PG&E and network vendor Silver Springs Networks stated several times that the meters were accurate but that they would test the meters. In both cases unusual weather was sited as a potential cause for the bill spikes.

Smart meters are just digital IT technology used for the electrical network, and aren’t exactly bleeding edge tech — the large majority of them are likely accurate, and if they aren’t there’s a digital trail that can be looked at and fixed. As we pointed out, however, the problem in both cases is a problem of communication. Utilities need to learn to communicate a lot better, and develop a much stronger relationship, with their customers, whether that’s through marketing, PR or customer outreach.

As Seth Frader-Thompson, CEO of energy management startup EnergyHub explained to me late last year, utilities, with their regulatory markets, have a long history of looking at their customers as “rate payers,” or even “load” and there needs to be a sea change in the relationship between utilities and power consumers.

Oncor tells The Dallas Morning News that it will host 100 open houses this year to explain how the new meters work, to help customers understand their bills and to teach them how to lower their energy bills.

Having poor communications won’t only hurt Oncor, it will affect the smart grid tech vendors as well. Oncor is working with smart meter maker Landis + Gyr, IBM and software startup Ecologic Analytics. And, as in the case of Bakersfield, these complaints will cause the entire utility and smart grid industries to sit up, take notice, and worry — a lot.

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By Katie Fehrenbacher

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  1. Here we go again, blame the meter!

    Do you think we will ever get people to pay attention to the part they play – we have so far to go on energy saving attitude still.

    I guess the web pages explaining how it all works would not count as good communications by the utility?

    1. And there’s no chance the utility company is using the process to give itself a virtual raise in rates, eh?

      1. The risk of penalties if this was occurring is enough to deter.

        Not to mention how big a conspiracy is being claimed – especially with meters (of various ilk) being in use for over a century. It would certainly dwarf the ones being claimed by 11/9 conspiracy theorists.

  2. The meter tells you how much energy you are using, if you link it to your computer software (Google e.g.) you can see how much energy each item in your house uses, how is thing a bad thing? If the people’s bills are higher they should be able to see why, units used verse units used the month before. The sofware will tell them where the units are going. Print it out and give it to the utility, what is the problem. Once again it seems anti-technology politicians are getting ahead of themselves.

  3. Katie Fehrenbacher Wednesday, March 10, 2010

    @Alex, I think it’s just the nature of Americans, we just want to pay as little as possible — for food, for energy — and don’t want to factor in externalities,a and we’re willing to fight to keep those low prices. I think that will change eventually.

  4. If we are really missusing our energy consumption why is it only showing after the smart meter has been installed? I am perfectly fine with the idea that the smart meter isn’t at fault, but there is something that is happening. Last year I took several steps to lower my energy use, installed radient barrior, added insulation and limited my use of the heater and ac (let me tell you my house gets really cold during the winter and it never warms up downstairs.) But since the smart meter has been installed my rates have trippled. You can’t tell me that there isn’t something involved.

    I’ve heard it speculated that there could be an issue of the transfer of information from the old meters to the new ones and I believe that to be extremely likely.

    1. Are you sure you weren’t getting estimates from your old bills?

      1. Do utilities in the US note for customers where an estimate has been used for a bill instead of an actual reading (for example, due to lack of access)?

    2. Has it occurred to anyone that the old mechanical meters were actually wrong and new ones are right? I guess it did to Cameron B. below. If true, it’s another incentive for utilities to swap out old ones then.

      1. How about maybe vice versa? The innards of the meters are now so inscrutable that you would never know the utility might have the electronic equivalent of its thumb on the scale. Switch it on at the central office, switch it off to test? Hmmm. Hasn’t some similar scam been done with electronic gas pumps?

      2. @Yacko: yes that could be the case too, however meters installed in the field aren’t all tested on an annual basis. Calibration may go out over time – even with spinning disc meters.

        What’s needed is high precision comparisons on the houses of those complaining, with old + new meters in addition to a higher calibrated device, energy audit of the house and finally approval for the findings to be made public – whichever way they go.

      3. By your logic would it not be better then to stick with the old meter and have a lower power bill

  5. Regulators are asking the wrong question!

    When customers complain about high gasoline costs regulators never blame the gas pumps, so why are regulators questioning the accuracy of smart meters in Bakersfield, California and in Dallas, Texas? Because they are answering the wrong question. We know these meters are accurate; they’ve been through years of testing before deployment. In fact, I’ve offered to buy anyone who reads my blog a three-star lunch if they can show me an inaccurate smart meter installed by a utility.

    The other wrong question is to ask why the bills have gone up. The reason is that, without a controlled experiment, it is impossible to determine the answer. There are too many variables: rates change, temperatures change, household occupants change, household appliances change (how about that new big screen television?), and even billing periods change (ranging from 27 to 33 days for a monthly bill).

    Here’s the right question: are bills for customers with smart meters any different from bills for customers without smart meters? The simple way to find out is by selecting a statistically valid random sample of customers with smart meters and customers without smart meters, then comparing the two groups. Because I know the meters are accurate, I know what the result of this test will be: both groups will show the same changes, because the changes are from all those other factors, not from the meter. People’s gasoline bills go up because they drive more or pump prices go up, not because the pumps are changed.

    But, you say, what about the information feedback from smart meters that will lower consumption? Good point, but that information is not being delivered yet. We’ll see those savings, but not immediately.

    1. Chris, I complete agree with you. Utility companies should have learn the lesson. People don’t like to see their bill goes up and they blame it all on SmartMeter. Do something and show them it has no merit to blame the meter. Do a controlled experiment and show them the usage (and they bill) increase is inline with old meters. This should shut them up.

    2. “regulators never blame the gas pumps”

      As I answered to Dan, there have been instances of service station gas pump measurement fraud; electronic pumps with 2 settings and all it takes is a flip of a switch. How much do I trust a money hungry company that has both physical access to my meter and central office electronic access also. Even as little as a 1 or 2% thumb on my electronic scale, so to speak, generates a lot of money. At least with the dumb meters it is difficult to have the meter read one way in use, and then another in a test bed. Who has control of the firmware? Are they live “upgrading’ my meter whenever they want?

    3. It’s interesting that you suggest a control group study. Oncor has installed both the analog and the smart meter on one house to perform such a test. We will know within 6 months what the outcome will be.

      1. Unfortunately I do not believe that will be sufficient for many of those raising issues.

  6. I think what might be happening is that the mechanical meters, over time, actually run slower than they should due to increased tolerances as the mechanics age. It is similar to how internal combustion engines develop increased oil usage after high mileage. Mechanical parts wear; whether in an automobile, a watch…or a utility meter.

    So I am guessing if there IS in fact any increase that couldn’t be explained by the already noted items such as different usage, weather, etc, that it is probably a situation whereby people are having their 30-year old “loose” (mechanical) meter replaced with an accurate “tight” meter and they would have seen the same (small) increase even if their meter was replaced by a newer mechanical unit.

  7. Doesn’t surprise me a bit. It seems like any form of change is something Texas opposes. Even if in the longterm it’s a great idea. I’m not generalizing but jeez.

    1. I can see how you might think that. But obviously we aren’t the only ones who had a problem with it, look at California.

      It’s not that the change is good or bad, it’s that there is a sticker shock involved. I don’t care who you are, or what the reasons are, when your bill goes from $500 to $1,000 there is a big shock and it generates a lifestyle change. And by lifestyle change I mean do you pay for electricity or the rent, electricity or food, electricity or the gas in your car that gets you to work. And before you say mass transit or bicycle, not many people have that option.

    2. Steven,
      It might come as a surprise but Texas is one of the few progressive states for energy innovation. (I am from the East Coast but have been following their market). They have the largest installed wind capacity in the US (almost 10,000 MW), are developed CREZ zones for transmission, & actual deregulation of energy retailers. Most states (ie CA) talk a lot but Texas actually gets things done.

  8. Why are some smart meter customers seeing increased electric bills? http://bit.ly/d8Lc31

  9. Electricity Texas Wednesday, March 10, 2010

    yeah, this is very informative and useful.
    keep up great writing..

  10. they have a switch to turn up wind it gets cold and turn down wind it gets warm in ky.

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