PG&E’s Smart Meter Opt-Out Plan: What’s Next?

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UPDATED: So Pacific Gas & Electric has proposed its plan for customers afraid of the radios in their smart meters: turn them off, and pay extra for the hassle. How will the utility’s proposal play with state regulators — and how will it affect smart meter rollouts around the country?

While it’s too early to say just how state regulators will balance PG&E’s concerns with those of its anti-smart meter customers, I’m guessing meter opponents will focus in on the costs PG&E wants to charge customers — an up-front fee of $270 and monthly fees of $14, or up-front charges of $135 and monthly fees of $20, for customers not on low-income assistance plans.

Stay tuned for charges of “outrageous” fees from advocates, and responses from PG&E that it needs to charge extra for opt-out customers, both to hire meter readers and customer service personnel to support them and to install extra equipment to keep its smart meter mesh networks intact. The California Public Utilities Commission order that led to PG&E’s proposal does allow the utility to include “reasonable” fees to opt-out customers, but just what “reasonable” means is open to debate.

In the meantime, there are a lot of questions raised by PG&E’s proposal, both for its own smart meter plans and for others around the country. Here are three areas I’m going to be keeping an eye on in the weeks to come:

How will PG&E’s decision affect other smart meter rollouts? It’s no secret that some utility customers aren’t happy with their smart meters, but they’re unhappy for many different reasons. PG&E has been the target of just about every anti-smart meter argument there is, but its opt-out plan came in response to a very specific complaint — that the wireless radios within them create radio frequencies that can cause health risks.

Many scientific studies on this topic have been done, and they appear to reach the same conclusion — that smart meters broadcasting intermittently at the power levels and frequencies common for smart meter networks around the country present a much smaller exposure to RF than many other devices, such as cellphones and wireless routers, considered safe by the Federal Communication Commission.

Those studies haven’t changed the minds of people who fear that smart meters are making them sick, however — and PG&E isn’t the only utility facing an anti-RF crowd. Central Maine Power, for example, has faced a backlash against its smart meter rollout from customers worried about RF health effects, and some of them have filed a complaint with Maine Public Utilities Commission asking for an option besides wireless meters.

How will PG&E balance opt-out plans with giving customers the full benefit of smart meter technology? This is a tricky subject for the utility, because it opens up another line of complaint about smart meters — that they’re not delivering customer benefits to make up for the costs they’re charging customers to install them.

PG&E has already faced customer complaints that new smart meters have overcharged them for power. An investigation last year concluded that the smart meter technology worked, but that PG&E failed to fully use it to respond to customer complaints or reach out to explain the benefits of the new meters.

But how can PG&E deliver those customer-benefitting technologies to smart meters that don’t have their main communications channel turned on? Beyond serving as a “digital cash register” for the utility, smart meters are supposed to help detect power outages for faster renewal of service, allow for connections and disconnections that save truck rolls and operations costs, and other benefits meant to lead to lower customer bills in the long run.

If only a handful of people opt out of having their smart meters turned on, utilities should still be able to get those cost-savings functions out of the many smart meters that remain, of course. But there’s another, longer-range smart meter capability that will be harder to deliver to opt-out customers — home area networks.

PG&E is installing ZigBee radios in its smart meters, and eventually wants to connect them to in-home energy sensing and controlling devices to help homeowners measure and manage their energy use. Meters with their mesh radios disabled should still be able to beam their energy readings into homes — but will customers opposed to 900-megahertz mesh radios be OK with 2.4-gigahertz ZigBee signals coming into their homes? I’d guess not.

The question is, does PG&E have an obligation to find another way to connect those opt-out customers to their meter data? The Environmental Defense Fund believes so. UPDATE: EDF has spoken out in support of smart meters in general, and in the matter of PG&E’s opt-out plan, it released a statement that urged customers not to choose to have their meters’ radios turned off, noting that it could “prevent customers from seeing and taking full advantage of real-time usage and pricing information” — just the functions that meter-to-home connectivity are meant to provide.

At the same time, EDF has called for the utility to “ensure that the alternative option retains the full functionality of its smart meter and gives consumers a way to control their energy use and costs.” That’s going to be hard for the utility to do without a radio-enabled smart meter, however. There are ways to connect homeowners to their energy use besides smart meters, of course — they could install in-home energy sensing devices like Energy Inc.’s The Energy Detective, for instance. But those systems cost several hundreds dollars a pop — a lot more expensive than a simple meter-ZigBee radio connection. Should the utility have to subsidize those systems for opt-out customers?

Image courtesy of Velorutione via Creative Commons license.

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