New, two-way smart meters being installed in California by Pacific Gas & Electric have prompted an investigation into potentially unfair spikes in bills to the utility’s customers. Meanwhile in Texas, smart meters being rolled out are causing similar concerns. And there have been questions over privacy issues and what utilities will do with the data they receive about our energy usage via the meters.
This whole, wonderful smart grid is not getting off on the best foot.
Oncor, which operates power lines and installs electricity meters in Texas, has installed more than 760,000 smart meters and is on its way to 3.4 million by the end of 2012, according to a report in the Dallas Morning News.
Yet some receiving the new smart meters are ticked, because their energy bills spiked this winter after the smart meters were installed. Oncor says tests conducted by company show only a fraction of difference in readings from old mechanical meters.
According to The Dallas Morning News:
Oncor has said that in fewer than 1 percent of the cases, the worker who switched the meters made an incorrect final reading of the old mechanical meter. But in other cases, people who use electricity for heat probably consumed more electricity than expected during the record-cold winter.
The Public Utility Commission allows Oncor to charge customers $2.19 a month for 11 years to pay for the meters.
OK, so there could be some reasons for the smart meter rage in Texas. But in California, electric utility PG&E has been under fire from customers who said their electric bills have significantly increased due to its smart meters. There is a concern PG&E either installed faulty smart meter units, or wanted to intentionally overcharge customers. And the California Public Utilities Commission has picked an independent investigator that will be responsible for investigating smart meters installed by PG&E, says Daily Tech.
“These instances underscore the need for utilities to educate their customers as best they can,” says Bill Ablondi, director of home systems for Parks Associates, a market research firm in Dallas, Texas. “Utilities need to explain the benefits of smart meters, how these are being paid for, and any potential problems they may experience when these smart meters are being rolled out.”
“I don’t think we can dismiss the complaints of consumers we’ve heard about, but perceptions are building that smart meters are causing problems, Ablondi says. “Hopefully [these instances] won’t hinder the rollout of smart meters and the smart grid.”
As for energy information being sold to third parties, Ablondi says that in California and Texas, there are laws that state that consumers own their own data, and can sell it. But what of utilities? Can they sell your energy usage data. This is another area that needs to be ironed out before large-scale smart grid services are implemented.
“The introduction of new technological approaches and ways of doing things in the market are always going to cause some disruption, and hopefully this will be all of it,” says Ablondi.
I wish I could say the same. The fact of the matter is that many electric utilities are not adept at customer service, or communicating effectively with their customer base. They largely have not had to—until now. They will have to communicate more effectively with their customers and explain what their customers can expect from smart meters and smart grid services—if we are going to have a smart grid at all.
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Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates