Consumer backlash against smart meters continues to create a small but ongoing drag on utility rollouts, with new opt-out schemes aimed at allaying fears.
The issue: some consumers want nothing to do with smart meters, either because of health concerns about the wireless technology or because of the potential for privacy invasion; and they do not want to pay extra to keep traditional meters. In recent weeks, several developments have highlighted the issue:
- Most notably in Vermont, where the governor is expected to sign a law allowing utility customers to reject a smart meter and pay nothing extra to opt out – at least for the near term, until results of more studies determine the actual costs of not deploying the meters. This free opt-out is a twist to the more common process of customers who opt out having to pay a monthly fee, and in some cases a one-time charge, to keep a traditional meter.
- In Maine, a similar free opt-out option has surfaced as a possibility in the wake of a challenge at the state Supreme Court to a monthly opt-out fee of $12.
- In California, the state’s PUC has approved opt-out schemes for the state’s big three utilities (Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric, and Southern California Edison) that call for most customers having to pay an initial one-time fee of $75 and then a monthly charge of $10 to keep their traditional meters.
- In Nevada, NV Energy has proposed two opt-out plans: a one-time $98.75 charge plus a monthly fee of $7.61 for Southern Nevada customers; and a one-time $107.66 charge plus monthly fee of $11.01 for Northern Nevada. The state’s utility commission is expected to rule on the opt-out pricing plans by this fall.
- Michigan and Texas are also considering opt-out schemes for customers who do not want a smart meter.
Although the actual number of customers opting out of smart meters remains small – often less than 1 percent of a utility’s total customer base – these people do represent an important minority, often quite vocal, that utility managers must respond to with skill and grace. Today’s utility customers have Internet-enabled tools (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube videos) for getting their points across. And important people are listening, including public utility commissioners and politicians.
The reality is smart meters are here to stay. The benefits to a utility outweigh the drawbacks, and most people are OK with the new technology. However, utility managers need to be smart about their rollouts, and respect customers who have concerns. The right approach is to follow what Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) has done, among others. Erik Krause, the District’s project development manager, says the key is to “focus on transparent and honest communications with customers.” And to provide opt-out programs that give people options – which may include a free one.
Article by Neil Strother, appearing courtesy the Matter Network.