Smart Meters are supposed believed to be a less costly alternative to traditional interval or time-of-use meters billing customers by how much is consumed and at what time of day will force consumers to adjust their consumption habits to be more responsive to market prices.  It’s also believed billing customers by how much is consumed and at what time of day will force consumers to adjust their consumption habits to be more responsive to market prices.    Well maybe not.  Smart Meter technology has been touted as a solution to high energy prices, peak demand abatement , and electricity shortage avoidance, but some recent rate disputes involving recipients of the smart meter technology have put the ’savings’ promise into question.

The  Pacific Gas and Electric company (PG & E), a California power utility started installing smart meters in residential homes in 2006 and plans to have installed 10 million by the end of 2010.  But PG&E’s smart meter installations in the Bakersfield area have caused an enormous backlash from customers – a class-action lawsuit has been filed representing thousands that will demand damages from the utility and third-parties also involved in the $2.2 billion project.  Residents claim that their gas and electric bills soared after PG&E installed the digital meters, which transmit data to the utility via wireless signals.  An individual example of the abhorrent rate increase comes from  Leo and June Margosian who are self-described frugal “light-switcher-offers” living in a Fresno townhouse where they don’t turn on the air conditioning unless it gets toward 110 degrees.  Their July 2008 electricity bill was $27.28. Then PG&E installed a “smart meter.” Their bill for July 2009 summer rose to $102.96. The couple pointed out they were actually out of town on vacation for half of that month.  PG&E, based in San Francisco, insists the meters are accurate, blaming most of the higher bills on hot weather and standard rate increases.  Sen. Dean Florez has called for a moratorium on Smart-meter installation until questions about the devices’ accuracy are resolved, an idea the utilities commission has resisted. PG&E, he said, is trying to deploy as many meters as possible before independent testing can find any problems with them.  PG&E spokesperson Jeff Smith, “With all due respect to the senator, we don’t believe his speculation deserves a response.”

A smart meter installation in Texas has likewise been met with anxiety and mis-trust after much of the same price increases felt in California arose. According to The Dallas Morning News, hundreds of Texas customers have called to complain that the meters, which are being installed by a Dallas-based electric company called Oncor, are inaccurately raising their electric bills.  Oncor has responded much in the same way that PG&E did, blaming the unusual weather conditions and inefficient electric sources as the main reasons for the upsurge in rates.  But many residents aren’t buying it.  Tricia Lambert doesn’t deny that December was cold. But January was about average, yet her smart meter said she used 3,314 kwh of energy, far above her typical usage.  Oncor  and the Public Utility Commission have received hundreds of complains prompting lawmakers to call for an abrupt halt to the installation of Smart Meters, suspend the $2.19 monthly fee Oncor charges all its customers for the new meters and hire an independent third party to study their accuracy.  The PUC has said it hopes to hire a company within two weeks to make sure the meters are functioning properly.

In Ontario the promise of lower rates for those who utilized off peak hours for domestic chores such as washing dishes or doing laundry was the greatest selling point of the smart meter installation but it seems that some people aren’t seeming the savings that they assumed would occur.  Ontario Energy Minister Brad Duguid insists  the main objective of time-of-use pricing is not to save consumers money, although some will achieve “modest” savings.  But that’s not how its been sold to people.

Currently, consumers have limited price incentive to manage their use of electricity as there is no price differential or way to measure consumption at different time periods.  Working alongside the Independent Electricity System Operator, the Ontario Energy Board is assessing the best cost breaks for the consumer through a regulated price plan for residential and other eligible users. This will incorporate pricing for smart meters, whereby electricity prices will vary depending upon when power is used. Customers will now know when the cost of running appliances works to the advantage of their pocketbook.

Peter D’Uva, vice president in charge of smart metering at Toronto Hydro, 2006

According to Enwin the regional electricity distributor for the city of Windsor, website,

Time of Use Pricing is being implemented to encourage Ontarians to use electricity when it is at it’s lowest price, which can lead to substantial changes on their monthly bill (i.e. take advantage of lower prices at night and on the weekends).

Because of the lack of transparency and legislation in regards to smart meters Consumers must blindly trust the smart meter manufacturers, utilities, and governments that use them.  This isn’t good enough.  The goal of conservation is an admirable and required as we move into a new era of non-traditional energy production, but people will not be motivated to change electricity consumption habits if it ends up costing them more.

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