Blog Post

Smart Meter Backlash, Again: This Time in Texas

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 (s 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.

41 Responses to “Smart Meter Backlash, Again: This Time in Texas”

  1. Smart meters. More like dumb meters. My last 2 readings are correct readings , but the usage is incredibly low, which cannot be correct. My worry is if they can slow down to nearly a halt, what is to stop them speeding up. We need to do more tests.

  2. More than likely, the old meters were wrong. My wife and I prefer to sign up for a year contract during the winter. Rates are usually lower at this time and you can lock the lower rate in until the same time the next year. We have been using Ambit Energy for the past 3+ years and are very satisfied. We sign up for the 100% green plan which only uses electricity produced from wind power.

  3. Barbie

    Forget the freaking money, people. Forget that they will be able to control every appliance in your home.

    This is EMF pollution to the MAX. Forget the bills (mine quadrupled, thank you). What about our health?

  4. no my fridge doors are not open I am the only one that lives there thats why I turn off all breakers but the fridge and one 15 watt porch light .
    txu / oncor tell me it’s because colder weather im useing
    more heat, yea whatever,,,, so when did a dearborne propane heater start using electric ? Bull crap
    these meters have a mind of there own.
    anyone that has a computer can hack into this meter and change the readings guess thats what oncor/txu is doing to screw us .

  5. Digital technology is so reliable I hardly think it is a meter issue, but a communications software and linkage issue. They need to use better technology than the Silver Springs product line offers.

    What I really want however is Ethernet speed broadband throughout my house over power line or through power line wireless adapters for Bluetooth devices and streaming data.

    Per the woman down below that saw her bills dramatically rise after a digital meter was installed, even after making changes to lights, and insulation, this really doesn’t make sense. I changed all of my bulbs, lowered the ‘stat, and even added 50% surcharge so I could use/pay for Windtricity and my electric bills are lower. What’s higher is the cost of Gas because I have a gas water heater and a gas stove and I have been cooking at home daily – much more than in the past. This is where I have pinched myself. You might check your gas portion of your electric bill (Where I live the same utility provides gas AND electricity.

  6. Wolverine

    Speaking in support of the environment, higher utility costs will cause people to reduce their use of electricity and natural gas, and that’s a very good thing. On the other hand, these “smart” meters are polluting our atmosphere with even more radiation, as all wireless devices do. The average modern human is so addicted to his/her electronic toys that (s)he doesn’t even know about this, let alone care. It’s bad enough that the planet is being covered in a blanket of radiation for totally unnecessary things like cell phones. We certainly don’t need “smart” meters if they’re going to use wireless technology and add more radiation.

  7. Thomas C. Taylor

    Smart meters might have a better acceptance rate if the manufacturers and utilities would provide access to a User Manual. We are a solar installer and smart meters have been installed at too many homes in violation of the existing law here in CA. We have tried everything we can to get a copy of instructions to read the smart meter displays but there doesn’t seem to be anything available. BTW: I welcome any correction and direction to information to dispute this statement.

    • How have they been in violation of a law? Care to provide details of which laws they’re breaking? I’ve heard of this but not one person has referenced the law that is being broken.

      As for “user manual” – I agree that user education should be part of it, however the user manual from the manufacturer may not be the most appropriate path to take.

  8. Tony Brockway

    Yes I blame the meter the have them fixed to screw us good !
    Tell me how 1 fridge uses 1 to 3 kwh some days while I am at work 13hrs.
    a day
    and other days it uses 21 kwh ? I turn off all breakers but the fridg.
    and I read that meter 2 times a day . I can do 3 loads of laundry wash and dry and be home that day all day and not use more than 12 kwh. so something is very wrong with all these meters .

    • How does the fridge use more?
      Couple potential reasons
      1) Thermal mass: Freezer full of icecream or empty? Lots of thermal mass makes fridge work less
      2) Defrost cycle is a big energy user, did it defrost?

    • Defrost cycle; contents of the fridge; ambient temperature in the house; door left ajar.

      1-3kWh over 13 hrs => 77-231W continuous (averaged). Standard operations, low load.
      21kWh over 13hrs => 1,615W continuous (averaged). Can you confirm that the door was not left ajar? That no other appliances were on that circuit? That no other people were home?

      What would be interesting is if you’d put a EMU on the fridge so you can confirm that the fridge is indeed the power draw.

  9. Mystery Mike:

    You are now severely and blatantly conflating several different systems together here in painting a broad brush across several vendors in an apparent and blatant attempt to smear their reputations.

    Silver Springs has indeed been in business for going on 9 years, not 10. I think what I said was “close to 10.” Sorry for my mix up on that word choice. You are a fastidous fact checker vis a vis google search.

    Except, you really need to gain a more detailed understanding of how all of these systems actually work together in an integrated fashion (and recheck your facts on what exactly is being deployed where and whether its even live yet btw) before attempting to discredit (without disclosing your full identity I might add) the reputation of some major players in the industry.

    Mike, if you are an active/credentialed participant in the utility industry, I invite you to join The Smart Grid Executive Forum we facilitate in Linked in. I would be happy to duke it out with you in front of the 1400+ utility industry leaders in that group “out in the open” for everyone to see. I’m done here though.

    (NOTE: In the interest of complete and full disclosure, Landis+Gyr was previously a customer of our company until Spring 2009).

  10. Here in Australia, we too are receiving so-called Smart meters. However, we have specifically been told that they WILL cause electricity bills to go up. The intention being to create billing increments of 30 minutes and link the increment price to the electricity spot-market price.

    In other words, the inability of the electricity providers to manage supply and demand will be passed on the consumers.

    here, the greatest usage is during summer heat, so the people most affected will be mothers with small children, the elderly and home-based small businesses.

    The people most able to pay will be the least affected.

    • @David: consumers are the reason for the supply requirements – it is their demand. Electricity has been provisioned in a market environment with the NEM for over a decade on the east coast.

      It will be up to the retailer to determine the product that consumers (residents, businesses, government departments etc) will buy, and vice-versa for the consumers to indicate receptiveness of a product back to the retailers. It is highly likely that a product which baselines prices at an average across a market segment will be available – the retailer effectively operating as an insurance agent for the end consumers. This already occurs, however instead of mandatory cross-subsidies existing at the retailer level they will now be based on an opt-in model – sign up for electricity with Company X on their Product Y and you will have this cost (and payment – eg: weekly, monthly, pre-paid etc) structure.

      The people most able to pay are always the ones least affected in a market environment – they have the highest levels of disposable income or cash reserves (“residential consumers” v “business consumers”). This is not something that should be “fixed” through the design of the payment system. Indeed as demand shifts to a “peakier peak” we need to ensure that those who are contributing are aware of the financial ramifications for this. Transparency in the cost of electricity is important – as is an awareness of the efficiency of devices. Just like an increase in petroleum prices was linked to a rising awareness of fuel efficiency, so to should a rise in the costs of electricity during periods where the cost to supply is high – providing the feedback loops to consumers are available.

      For solutions to low income earners, welfare solutions are the optimal answer provided by the government with the support of the population. Assistance not only with payments, but also with advice and support for upgrades on poor-efficiency devices needs to be included as part of this solution.

      The electricity system is not a command and control driven environment – it’s a dynamic system where supply requirements are directly driven by demand, and demand directly driven by consumer choice. To remove the responsibility to pay for, and be aware of the implications of, those choices is to lead a system to a failure point.

  11. Mike:

    You have your facts wrong here on what is being deployed and where. Regardless, both Landis+Gyr and Silver Spring technology is proven in the field for smart metering. Also Silver Springs doesn’t sell meters they provide the wireless mesh networking systems that connect various solid state smart meters from all major vendors including L+G, GE and others back to the utility headquarters and they’ve been doing this for a long time (close to 10 years). Landis+Gyr has a nearly 100 year history. They both provide proven technology that works and provides proven benefit for both the utilities and the end consumers when those consumers have the tools to take advantage of the data about their consumption and therein lies a key issue.

    Nothwithstanding, another key point not highlighed in this whole stream is that Oncor is a delivery only utility company in the context of the Texas deregulated utility marketplace. This is unique and very different from the PGE situation so that distinction should be recognized as the implications are real in terms of the consumer PR and billing issues that underpin both cases. Its important that everyone recognize that Oncor does not control the portion of the consumer bill related to what a consumer’s actual retail rate is for consumption and this can and will fluctuate both with weather conditions and the agreements each consumer has with their energy retailer.

    Also, I think the blanket statement saying “Oncor has done a poor job educating and communicating with customers” is a both unfair and overstated and utility industry people would agree with this sentiment. But perception is reality.

    Oncor have efficiently deployed nearly one million smart meters in a fairly short period of time and have they have actually invested significantly in consumer outreach and education including a mobile consumer experience road show at state fairs, as well as other innovative initiatives that shouldn’t be thrown aside amidst the current controversy. I.E. Don’t throw the baby out with the current bad PR issue bathwater.

    Broadly speaking, the utility indusustry does not possess as a core competency the engagement of individual residential consumers — or even segements of residential considmers — on a one to one basis but rather have a one to many business process approach to customer service (including systems and orientation) that is always filtered through the prism of rate recovery in the context of regulation.

    Oncor is wires energy delivery company in the context of the Texas market and Texas regulation which dictates deployment of the smart metering systems.

    There are indeed some important lessons learned from both the PG&E and Oncor deployments in terms of educating consumers. Its clear that giving consumers the tools to both monitor personally — and better control their energy usage alongside — rather than long after– smart meters seems a pretty good idea in the context of these recent events when consumers are willing to pay for that capability. That is one lesson learned that hasn’t been written about much.

    There are always going to be a small number of consumers in a group of close to a million now who feel something is wrong regardless of how much PR is done and in fact there could be a small number who have a real and genuine issue with quality when you deal in millions of units. But in light of and considering statistics, the proven nature of this technology, and the potential it has to help consumers engage more actively and directly in how and when they use electric power, the republican state senator calling for a halt for deployment needs to do his homework and reconsider. This is exactly the wrong thing to do for consumers in the long haul. Have the PUC do their investigation and when the facts are presented both Oncor and PGE will be vindicated. But to Katie F’s point, the PR damage is done and how the broader utility industry reacts going forward is definitely a lesson learned for all.

    • Don the truth is both Oncor and PG&E share public backlash and their meter technology. As it turns out, these utilities also have signed agreements to use the MDM software from Ecologic Analytics (which is partially owned by L+G). If all this wasn’t enough, we are now learning of customer backlash in Australia because of massive over-billing errors similar to Oncor and PG&E. The connection between Australia, PG&E and Oncor is Landis+Gry and Silver Springs.

      You also state that there are examples of Silver Springs technology in
      smart meter deployments for “nearly 10 years.” That is impossible since
      Silver Springs was founded in 2002 and didn’t have a large scale agreement
      for deployment until Florida Power and Light sometime in 2007 (which today
      is still only partially installed). The reality is Silver Springs
      technology has not been demonstrated to work well in large scale, long
      running deployments since the longest running and largest deployments are PG&E, Oncor and FLP, and we know that there are billing problems with these deployments. What we are witnessing with Oncor and PG&E might be problematic with the technology as deployed in mass and not reproducible in a laboratory or pilot type setting. It doesn’t mean the problems can’t be corrected, but these over-billing problems should be extremely troubling to utilities since it is totally unrealistic to have a bill go up 300% because of a new meter.

      For your information, the only long term, large scale deployment in the world to date is Enel’s smart grid in Italy which completed installation by 2005 with ~27 million meters. This is a fully functioning deployment, and to my knowledge there were no customer complaints of inflated billings (e.g. 200% to 300% previous bills) during the roll out or subsequent full deployment.

  12. There are many successful smart meter deployments. However Oncor and PG&E are the two poster children of poor smart grid roll outs. It is likely that Oncor and PG&E meters are not functioning correctly when deployed, but work in a controlled, laboratory setting; there is enough empirical evidence to suggest that something is wrong. The common denominator with the Oncor and PG&E deployments is Landis+Gyr meters with Silver Springs technology. Any utility considering deploying Landis+Gyr/Silver Springs meters should seriously rethink their strategy and look to successful smart meter deployments as examples to follow.

  13. Steven I.

    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.

    • 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.

    • Rover1401

      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.

  14. 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.

  15. Chris King

    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.

    • 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.

    • “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?

    • 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.

  16. 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.

      • 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)?

    • 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.

      • 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?

      • @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.

  17. @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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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?

      • 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.