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 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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