Smart meter technology is not ready to be used in the way the utilities claim, and accurate meters don’t necessarily mean accurate bills. Why is it so important for smart meters to be installed now?
When Southern California Edison started installing its new digital meters—commonly called smart meters—in the Coachella Valley in November as part of an effort to modernize an antiquated power system, utility officials assured residents the wireless, digital devices would not generate higher bills or disrupt their electric service.
But growing numbers of Edison customers across the valley say their bills have increased, in some cases more than doubling, since the new meters were installed.
Others report post-installation power surges that have burned out light bulbs and other appliances.
Palm Springs resident Robert Nickels said winter electric bills for his well-insulated, 950-square-foot home averaged about $38 a month for years.
After getting his new smart meter, his first bill spiked from $32 to $85, he said.
“I’m angry,” Nickels said. “They need to do a little research why these bills are so much higher when we’re not using any more electricity.”
Analog to digital: What’s changed?
Analog electrical meters date back to the end of the 19th century, when the spread of commercial electric utilities led to the need to measure customers’ electricity use.
The underlying design has not changed since then, consisting of aluminum disks that spin at a rate proportional to electric use and have to be read directly off the device.
The new digital smart meters record electrical use in real time, on an hourly or more frequent basis. They offer two-way communication between the meter and a central system, eliminating the need for meter readers. They also can flag power outages and monitor power quality.
Not all bills have risen, however, and some have actually dropped.
Ann Brown of Rancho Mirage said her bill went up a little, but she figured it was due to a week of holiday company and extra power for her Christmas lights.
“I give them an A,” she said of the new meters.
Ken Devore, director of Edison’s SmartConnect program, defended the accuracy of the meters, attributing any fluctuations in billing to seasonal or one-off changes in electrical use. The company is working with customers to resolve any problems, he said.
“The meter only measures usage,” he said. “There has to be some kind of usage coming through the system. When you look at the individual situation, there was something unique about customer usage.”
Some of the bigger bills might be due to the valley’s December cold snap and a resulting uptick in heating use, he said.
That’s not a convincing answer for Paul and Maggie Wheat of Cathedral City, one of a small group of area residents trying to refuse the meters or at least delay their installation.
When workmen arrived to install a new meter at the Wheats’ home, Maggie Wheat said, “I didn’t want to open my door, and I told them I wasn’t ready. To me, it’s very unnecessary, and we are going to end up paying for these things.”
The Wheats, Nickels and other valley residents concerned about the smart meters are by no means alone. In California and across the nation, consumers are complaining about increased bills and power surges and, in some instances, public officials are taking action to stop or slow meter installations.
In a largely symbolic move, the Marin County Board of Supervisors voted earlier this month for a moratorium on meter installations. Public utility commissions in Maryland and Hawaii have put a hold on any installations because they don’t see solid benefits for consumers.
When and how consumers will benefit from the meters and the new smart power grid that will follow is a main point of contention between utilities and their customers.
With power across the U.S. now flowing on antiquated and overloaded transmission lines, the creation of a national, computerized smart grid has become a priority for federal officials and the power industry as a whole.
Installing the smart meters is the first step in that transition, they say.
In California, consumers are shouldering the cost of the new equipment, with Edison customers paying rates with a 1.6 percent increase built in to cover both the meters and their installation.
The Imperial Irrigation District, which supplies power to the eastern half of the valley, has yet to start smart meter installation. But officials say the meters are coming, possibly later this year, once the IID board approves a plan.
Appliance-frying power surges are another possible side effect of meter installation because power mains are not turned off when the new equipment is installed.
Health and privacy
Because smart meters run on wireless technology, they also raise health and privacy issues for some consumers.
Meter opponents say the emission of radio frequencies by the meters can cause a range of health problems, from headaches and sleeplessness to heart problems and increased cancer risks.
Some consumers also are worried about the security of data collected from the meters, which they say could provide detailed information on their electric use, daily routines and lifestyle.
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a smart meter data protection law in September to ensure utilities do not share any customer information from the new meters without a person’s consent.
On the health front, a recent study from the California Council on Science and Technology reported that the level of emissions from smart meters is less than from many other home appliances. But the council also said not all the potential side effects of the meters are known and more study is needed.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-Marin, has introduced a bill in the state Legislature that would allow consumers to request a hard-wired meter rather than the wireless devices now being installed.
Problems with your smart meter? Joshua Anaya, consumer advocate and staff attorney for the Utility Consumers’ Action Network of San Diego, has three words of advice for people who see a big jump in their electric bills after they get a smart meter.
“Document, document, document,” he said. “It’s the customer’s word against the utility company’s.”
To contest a bill amount, Southern California Edison customers should call (800) 655-4555.
For power surge problems, call Corix Measurement Services at (877) 407-2317.
To file a complaint with the California Public Utilities Commission, visit the PUC website, www. cpuc.ca.gov, or call (800) 649-7570.
Robert Hayden, another Palm Springs resident, ended up paying more than $1,700 to replace a microwave-convection oven that burned out right after a workman installed a smart meter without first turning off the main power switch.
The replacement cost was so high, he said, because the oven was built into his kitchen, limiting his choices for a new one.
“I was under the assumption they were going to shut off the main because it doesn’t make any sense not to,” he said. “All they did was pull the old meter off and plug in this new smart meter.”
Edison’s contract with Garden Grove-based Corix Measurement Services, which is performing the installations, doesn’t require turning off the main, said Christopher J. Trueblood III, the company’s vice president. Installers do test the voltage to ensure the meter is installed safely, he said.
“The installer will rock the meter in and out of the socket,” he said “They may create a small power surge; it leaves a blackening on the back of the meter and the socket.”
When the company receives a complaint about a burnt-out appliance, it checks the back of the meter involved and, if the blackening is found, pays the claim, he said.
A small number of claims—well below industry standards, Trueblood said—has been paid to valley customers.
Devore defended Corix, saying, “They’re using state-of-the- art best practices.”
Power use monitor
At least part of the challenge for Devore and other utility officials is getting consumer buy-in on the meters when dollar-and-cents benefits have yet to materialize.
They are coming, he said, in the form of more easily accessible and more detailed i nformation on their daily electrical use, which they can then analyze to cut power use and bills.
Sometime this spring, Edison will launch a Advertisement website enabling valley customers to monitor their daily electric use, he said, and zeroing in on kilowatt-guzzling appliances.
Time of use rates—known as dynamic pricing—will follow, with customers charged higher rates for electricity used during peak hours and lower rates for off-peak use. The new rates, to be rolled out this summer, will be optional to start, according to Edison officials.
“What’s going to change (is) the customer will have more of the immediate information, more programs and services, benefits and capabilities,” Devore said.
One thing smart meters can’t do is spin backward, which could be a problem for people with rooftop solar installations. Solar owners know their panels are feeding power back into the grid when they see their meters spinning backward.
Solar owners in Southern California Edison’s service territory in the Coachella Valley have so far been left out of smart meter installation. Company officials said they do have a smart meter that will be able to accurately record solar generation, which will be rolled out in the near future.
Residents such as the Wheats are not being forced to accept meters now, he said, but the company hopes to convince them over time.
“We have had good success with that, trying to do a little demystifying,” he said. “Some people, they need some clarification. Ultimately we want to replace all the meters; we need to come back and do it.”
Meanwhile consumer advocates remain skeptical about the meters’ technology and benefits.
Mindy Spatt, communications director at The Utilities Reform Network in San Francisco, said the technology behind the meters has yet to prove itself.
“They claim all your appliances will talk to the meter,” she said. “My appliances haven’t said a word, and they’re not planning to.”
“The technology is not ready to be used in the way the utilities claim. Why is it so important for them to be installed now?” she said.
David Ashuckian, deputy director of the Division of Ratepayer Advocates at the California Public Utilities Commission, said Advertisement that accurate meters don’t necessarily mean accurate bills, pointing to billing software problems Pacific Gas & Electric had when it introduced smart meters in Northern California.
“We are reviewing that to determine if there is additional work needed to get to the bottom line of the billing issues,” he said. “The kind of reports we had seen indicate to us there has to be something going on.”
More to the point, he said, the benefits of the meters are unevenly distributed and loaded in the utilities’ favor, from operational savings reaped from the elimination of meter readers to the new pricing structures.
“Sixty to 65 percent of the benefits are on the utilities’ side,” Ashuckian said. “That leaves 35 to 40 percent that needs to come from ratepayer behavior changes, or the meters will never be cost effective.”
When Paul LaPlante of Palm Desert complained about a 30 percent jump in his bills after his new meter was installed, Edison sent out service representatives twice to test the device.
“It’s operating correctly,” LaPlante said. “They walked the whole house and checked appliances for (a reason for) the increase, and unfortunately there isn’t any.
“I don’t feel it’s really resolved,” he said. “I don’t have something I can put my hands on. I don’t want to be stuck for the rest of my desert life with utility bills 30 to 40 percent more than they have been.”