Md. panel ponders smart-meter alternative

Foes want an opt-out, but that's just one of two options regulators are now considering

  • Rudolph Johnson III, a BGE meter crew leader, removes a BGE legacy meter and installs a smart meter on a home on Hoot Owl Road.
Rudolph Johnson III, a BGE meter crew leader, removes a BGE legacy… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
January 13, 2013|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Some Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers — Del. Glen Glass of Harford County included — are convinced that they don't want a smart meter wirelessly sending data about their energy usage day in and out.

Some, like Eric Rockel of Lutherville, are withholding judgment while they do more research.

Maryland utility regulators firmly support the new meters, but even they have decided to do more research. They want to know the cost of customers opting out and keeping one of the old analog meters before ruling on whether to allow it.

The Maryland Public Service Commission said this week that it would impose an "appropriate" charge on anyone opting out, if it does go that direction. Otherwise, it will require smart meters across the board but offer the option of an "alternative" installation aimed at lowering or eliminating radio frequency emissions, a move the panel hoped would allay concerns about radiation risks.

It hasn't — not for the most ardent members of the anti-smart-meter crowd, at least.

"We're disappointed," said Jonathan Libber, president of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness, a citizens group with about 500 members. "In the positive sense, at least they didn't absolutely forbid opt-outs. We still hope we'll get one."

An opt-out option may come without the Public Service Commission. Glass, a Republican, says he will propose legislation shortly to require that consumers be allowed to opt out at no cost. A similar bill failed to get out of committee last year, but this year will be different, he said.

"Now I've got a lot of traction, I have people emailing me, I have people who want to be co-sponsors," Glass said. "We're the Free State — we should not have these things shoved down our throats."

Utilities have been installing meters that talk back to them — supplying near-real-time information about energy use — since at least the middle of the last decade. The devices save the companies money on meter reading, provide immediate information about outages and offer customers options for lowering energy bills.

Federal grants increased the pace of installation in the last few years. About a quarter of U.S. electrical customers now have smart meters — more than 35 million in all, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

As the meters proliferate, so too do states with opt-out programs, including California, Nevada and Maine. Vermont — as far as advocates are aware — is the only state where customers can opt out without a monthly charge. Typically, people must pay an initial fee and extra per month for the privilege of having an old-style meter.

Nevada regulators just lowered the charge to about $52 initially and just under $9 a month, down from about $100 initially and more than $9 per month, after the state's Bureau of Consumer Protection complained.

The opt-out ranks are small — based on other utilities' experiences, BGE anticipates 1 percent or less. Central Maine Power Co., for instance, says 1.3 percent of its 620,000 customers have asked for a smart-meter alternative.

But the device's opponents are worried and vocal. Some are concerned that smart meters pose a health risk, much in the way that there are anxieties about cellphones. Others point to fires started by several meters in Pennsylvania — a different brand than the one BGE uses. And still others don't like the idea of more information about their energy use flowing to utilities, especially via potentially hackable wireless methods.

Maryland's Public Service Commission said it didn't find convincing evidence of risks to customers. Regarding health, the commission said: "Smart meters emit 'non-ionizing' radiation, which scientists have studied extensively for several decades and found no evidence of harmful effects on human beings."

Three of the panel's members said they were considering an opt-out because some Marylanders have a "good-faith belief" about health risks. The other two commissioners opposed the opt-out idea altogether.

"Even if only a small number of customers were to opt out, the companies will now be required to maintain parallel meter data management systems and retain legacy meter reading staff and infrastructure — costs that [smart meter] deployments were designed to eliminate," the dissenters wrote.

It will be months before the panel makes a final decision. Members want detailed information about costs, and the utilities have until July 1 to provide data. The state's Office of People's Counsel, which represents residential utility customers, wants to put experts on the case to make sure costs passed on to people taking a smart-meter alternative are fair.

In the meantime, customers may opt out temporarily until regulators decide whether the option will be permanent. They must make the request to their utility. (BGE won't disclose how many have done so.)

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