Skeptics say new meters not so smart

For a few homeowners, having a smart meter doesn’t seem like a bright idea.

They’re worried about privacy, health risks and their lack of choice in the matter.

In response to their complaints, the Public Utility Commission of Texas last month began evaluating whether to let electric customers opt out of the devices that power companies say improve efficiency for the companies and their customers.

More than 100 homeowners across the state signed a petition asking the PUC to put a moratorium on the installation of smart meters while it considers the opt-out idea.

The PUC has no credible evidence of significant health or safety issues but decided to explore opt-outs after receiving comments that included concerns about privacy related to the data the meters collect, accuracy and other matters, spokesman Terry Hadley said.

“We are willing to accept and receive any information folks may have regarding any comments, but at this point we believe the meters are safe and secure and accurate,” he said.

Hadley said other states, cities and companies have or are considering opt-out plans, often charging a stiff fee to customers who decline smart meters. The fees cover extra costs such as in-person meter reading that smart meters don’t require.

In the Houston area, CenterPoint Energy is on schedule to complete installation of more than 2 million smart meters by May. Area electric customers have been covering part of the costs for the upgrade through a fee of about $3 on their monthly bills since 2009.

The meters provide real-time power-use information to electricity distributors and customers. Industry officials say the information lets customers monitor their electric use more effectively, helps distribution companies respond more quickly to outages and allows electric retail providers to tailor rate plans to customers’ usage habits.

Joy Demark said the smart meter helped her realize just how much power her appliances use. She says she’s saved about $20 a month on her power bill by changing her habits – for example, by running her dishwasher only a few times a week when it’s stuffed.

“My family laughs about it, but it’s like a game to me,” Demark said. She thinks the smart meter enhances her privacy because it’s read remotely rather than in person by a meter reader.

Other electric customers, however, fear loss of privacy and possible health effects. They cite testimony before California’s PUC that the meters emit radio waves and electromagnetic field radiation that could be harmful.

‘We don’t have a choice’

A Houston couple, Thelma and Nick Taormina, helped gather signatures for the petition.

Thelma Taormina worries hackers might obtain her power usage information and that power companies could turn appliances linked to smart meters on and off without her permission.

“We don’t have a choice not to take something we don’t want,” she said. “We also don’t have the right to not buy power from them because CenterPoint has a monopoly on the area. That’s just not America.”

CenterPoint owns and operates the power distribution grid in the Houston area regardless of which retail provider sells customers their electricity.

The Taorminas have thwarted the installation so far – once when Thelma Taormina pulled a pistol after she and a meter installer tussled in August over her refusal to let him switch out her old meter.

CenterPoint spokesman Floyd LeBlanc wouldn’t comment on the incident but said such resistance is rare and that employees and contractors are trained to disengage and call law enforcement if conversations about smart meters become heated.

The Taormina incident did not result in any legal action.

Thelma Taormina acknowledges her views may seem far-fetched.

“But Nick and I see it as a threat to our personal liberties,” she said.

Consumer advocate Carol Biedrzycki, who heads the Texas Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Energy and helped the state of Maine form its opt-out provision, agrees that without rules there is potential for abuse.

“There are people who have a fear of flying, and we don’t make them get on airplanes. There are people who don’t think meat is good for their health; we don’t make them eat it,” she said.

Addressing concerns

CenterPoint’s installation plan, approved by regulators, doesn’t include an opt-out provision.

The company contacts customers who decline and tries to address their concerns, said spokeswoman Leticia Lowe. Of the nearly 2.1 million smart meters installed to date, no more than 100 customers have refused it initially. Only 30 continued to refuse after conversations with CenterPoint officials, Lowe said, and the company is still working to convince those holdouts.

Having a mix of digital smart meters and the older, analog meters could create a chaotic and costly system to operate, Lowe added.

“If some consumers had analog meters that were unable to communicate wirelessly, they would require special services at additional cost, reducing the systemwide efficiencies and increasing operational costs to consumers,” she said.