Electric customers opting out of smart meters may be shocked by monthly charges -- Gazette.Net


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Some Pepco customers are alarmed by Maryland regulators’ decision to let utilities charge them extra fees totaling more than $200 in the first year for refusing to have a smart meter installed on their homes.

Pepco, Baltimore Gas and Electric, Delmarva Power and Light and Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative are installing the digital meters, which transmit usage and other data through radio waves.

The Maryland Public Service Commission issued an order late February allowing those utilities to charge household and small commercial customers a one-time $75 fee, plus monthly fees, for opting not to have one of the “advanced” meters.

The meters have been controversial because of concerns over low-level radiation they emit, data security and privacy, and reports that some meter models have overheated and caused fires.

The service commission set monthly fees at $14 for Pepco customers, $11 for BGE customers and $17 for SMECO and DPL customers.

According to the commission, Pepco and DPL (both owned by Pepco Holdings) had proposed charging customers $58 per month, BGE had proposed charging $15 per month and SMECO had proposed charging $34.94 per month.

All four utilities had proposed an up-front fee of about $100 for refusing the smart meters, according to a commission announcement of the decision.

Opt-out customers are to be billed on the first billing cycle after July 1 and may pay the up-front $75 fee in three monthly installments.

Customers who opted not to have a smart meter installed while they waited for the commission’s decision, are to be notified of the decision within 60 days by their utility, according to the Feb. 26 order.

Utilities are allowed to bill those customers who don’t withdraw their temporary opt-out requests. The opt-out requests were first allowed by the commission under a May 2012 order.

Abbe Milstein of Rockville said she is worried that some customers who chose not to have a smart meter installed while awaiting the Public Service Commission’s decision will be billed without knowing that large fees have been attached, and that they “are not going to be able to afford it.”

The notification process has had glitches, noted Milstein, who founded the group Powerupmontco to push for more reliable electric service.

Last year Pepco sent installers to replace some analog meters with smart meters without notifying those customers in advance by letter, as the commission had ordered.

Pepco officials said Wednesday the utility had not counted how many customers have withdrawn their opt-out requests since the commission announced the fees Feb. 26.

“It’s too early to have any official numbers as we are still working through how to handle the new process,” Pepco spokesman Bob Hainey wrote in an emailed response.

Pepco delivers electricity to about 540,000 customers in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and to 259,000 customers throughout Washington, D.C.

From Montgomery Pepco has gotten 1,796 opt-out requests and from Prince George’s 439 and 99 percent of Pepco’s smart meter installation in the Maryland counties is complete, Hainey reported.

Utilities have said it costs more to maintain two billing systems and to continue sending people out to read meters. They also said some operational efficiencies are lost when customers don’t use smart meters.

The Public Service Commission order calls for utilities to track and report costs incurred by serving customers without smart meters so that the commission can review and adjust the charges if warranted. Since the order was issued, the Commission estimates that it has received several dozen phone calls, e-mails, and letters from consumers, some voicing opposition and some seeking more information about the order, spokeswoman Regina L.Davis said.

PSC Commissioner Harold D. Williams wrote a dissenting opinion in which he noted that Vermont did not let utilities charge opt-out fees. Actual costs should be assessed when they are known and considered in rate hearings, Williams wrote.

Other commissioners said their decision is similar those made in other states, including California, Florida and Illinois.

Smart meters have been touted for their ability to notify utilities of outages and for the potential to help customers track and manage their electricity use.

So far the meters’ automated features have helped Pepco restore service faster and reduced the need to dispatch restoration crews by 10 percent, Hainey said.

Legislation is being considered in the Maryland Senate and House that would prohibit utilities from charging fees based on a customer’s choice of a smart or analog meter and that would prohibit disclosing data to a third party without the customer’s written consent — except for billing and to support “customer choice — and would penalize utilities for violations.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 37 million smart meters had been installed in the United States by 2011.