Blog Post

Texas Smart Meter Backlash Spits Out a Lawsuit

The fisticuffs over smart meters in Dallas, Tex. has morphed into a good ol’ American lawsuit. The Dallas Morning News has been covering the story and reports that a couple filed a lawsuit on Friday accusing Texas utility Oncor of fraud, and claiming that the smart meter recently installed at their home is inaccurate and has unfairly boosted their electricity bill. This is the second smart meter lawsuit in the last few months, following the suit filed last year in Bakersfield, Calif.

First off, I think taking this to the courts is not a productive solution, compared to, say, some of the protesters’ other more interesting grassroots web-based messaging projects. The lawsuit, which is seeking class action, is also filled with polarizing language, and describes the suit as looking to “address and rectify the fraudulent, deceptive, and discriminatory fleecing of Texas consumers.”

Here’s my favorite inflammatory quote:

With superior resources and a profit motive, ONCOR’S spin doctors have sought to bamboozle the public with smoke and mirrors. The jig is officially up and it’s time for ONCOR to come clean and concede that the “Smart Meters Ain’t So Smart.”

But there is actually one section of the lawsuit I thought was somewhat on point:

While there may be certain potential benefits to the Smart Meters, ONCOR is not advertising that customers with smart meters will ultimately be charged different rates depending on when energy is consumed.

And that, folks, is the rub of smart meters and the next generation of smart grid pricing. Sometimes consumers will be charged more, and the utility needs to heavily promote services and ways that the consumer can lower the bill.

Australia’s state of Victoria recently put a moratorium on their real time pricing scheme that had been rolling out along with its smart meters, after the government decided to study how the pricing could disproportionately affect people who spend a lot of time at home during the day like the elderly and the unemployed. Victorian Energy and Resources Minister Peter Batchelor called for the pricing moratorium after he met with charities and social services lobbying groups that suggested that the time of use pricing in Victoria could add $250 to annual electricity bills for some customers who couldn’t change their energy consumption behaviors, and who could be hit the hardest by the pricing change.

The Texas lawsuit points out that the rollout of smart meters has been in economically disadvantaged areas, including Oak Cliff, Wilmer, Hutchins, Garland, Mesquite and Seagoville. As the Dallas Morning News points out, the suit fails to mention that some more prosperous areas including Lakewood and Kessler Park have also received the new meters.

As we’ve said before this is a marketing and education issue, not a technology problem. I was in Dallas earlier this week at the KEMA (energy consulting) summit and attendees at the event pointed out how Texas utilities need to do a better job of being proactive about education and communication with the consumer. Instead of doing side-by-side meter testing comparisons after problems arise, they should have created a communication campaign long before the problems occurred.

Getting ahead of the backlash is one of the goals of the newly created Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC), which will work on creating successful messaging and education tools for consumers and the smart grid. The group is still small and largely is being led by forward-thinking tech players.

For more research check out GigaOM Pro subscription required:

Making Smart Meters the Must-Have Gadget of the Year

Smart Meters: Time for a Customer Service Reboot

Image courtesy of cote’s photostream Flickr Creative Commons.