Consumers may be able to opt out of smart meters

Months after the installation of smart meters was finished in Houston, and with the rollout mostly completed elsewhere in the state, the Public Utility Commission may consider letting people opt out of using the high-tech meters.

Legislators say they will do something if commissioners don’t act.

“But that shouldn’t be an excuse to let the PUC off the hook,” said state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, who authored the 2005 bill that ultimately required the PUC to develop a plan for the smart-meter networks.

The Legislature intended to allow people to “opt in” and choose smart meters, he said: “Never was it presented as something that would be forcibly deployed.”

The PUC could take up the issue next week, four months after a public hearing on the topic.

More than 650 people and organizations filed written comments, many of them airing health or privacy concerns with the meters and claiming efforts to refuse them were overruled by utility companies.

An October hearing by the state Senate Business and Commerce Committee raised similar concerns.

Smart meters look similar to conventional analog meters but can identify energy consumption in more detail and transmit the information between a home or business and the electricity provider.

CenterPoint Energy began installing the meters in the Houston area in 2009, saying it would give people more control over their energy use and help them save money while allowing for quicker restoration of power after outages.

The $3.24 monthly fee residential customers paid for the meters beginning in 2009 was cut to $3.05 last year after CenterPoint received a $200 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

CenterPoint spokeswoman Alicia Dixon said the grant will allow the monthly surcharge to end after six years, rather than 12.

She said CenterPoint used $150 million to install more than 2.2 million smart meters and applied the other $50 million to its “smart grid” initiative. That is intended to work with the meters by incorporating sensors, remote switches and other equipment to more quickly detect and isolate breaks in power lines while service crews are dispatched.

Most smart-meter installations in Houston went smoothly. But there were protests.

“I refused the Smart Meter Installation,” Lawrence Worley of Houston wrote in a letter to the PUC. “The installer told me it was mandatory and that if I did not let them install it they would call the police and shut my power off. When I called CenterPoint Energy to complain, they told me that the installation of Smart Meters is mandatory under Texas law.”

The Public Utility Regulatory Act says “it is the intent of the Legislature that net metering and advanced meter information networks be deployed as rapidly as possible,” but it does not include penalties for consumers who refuse them.

Dixon said CenterPoint “needs 100 percent deployment in order for the smart meter to be effective.”

With deployment statewide well underway, it remains unclear how an opt-out program would work.

PUC spokesman Terry Hadley said 6.2 million smart meters, covering 92 percent of the state’s competitive retail electric market, have been installed.

Some states charge customers a fee to opt out after meters are installed, Hadley said.

The PUC could take up the issue when it meets Dec. 13.

Bonnen and state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, have said they will file legislation if the PUC doesn’t act.

A few people have avoided the meters and become folk heroes in the anti-smart-meter subculture.

John and Devvy Kidd of Big Spring insisted their electricity couldn’t be cut off when Oncor attempted to install a smart meter in 2011, because John Kidd is disabled. The Kidds now are suing the PUC, seeking a public hearing on health risks posed by wireless smart meters.

“The risks from electromagnetic radiation frequency are very real, and yet the PUC commissioners treat it, and us, as if we’re inconsequential,” Devvy Kidd said.

Hadley referred questions about health risks from smart meters to the PUC website, which notes that smart meters emit radio frequency signals typically less than one-tenth the FCC standard and are considered safe.

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