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Smart meters and customer complaints

"One Customer's Frustration" really rang a bell with readers, even as the torrent of commentary on the blackouts in India continued to ring my bell. 

It's funny. Everyone seems to want to move beyond talking about smart meters and the customer, but we can't because once the conversation moves from passive "ratepayers" to "customers," with all the expectations, savvy and potential power that implies, you've got a tiger by the tail. 

In any case, Monday I featured the concerns and complaints of a customer of Oklahoma Gas and Electric. Please see the original column for his full viewpoint. Suffice to say here, in setting up reactions from our readers, that the gentleman complained that he knew how to save energy, he didn't need an expensive smart meter for that task. He expressed hesitancy in believing what OG&E is telling him about the accuracy of the meter technology, noting issues elsewhere. He believes that OG&E will seek to hoodwink its customers by imposing mandatory dynamic pricing. And the whole kit and caboodle is being forced on him. 

Enter: our readers. 

"I'm afraid that AMI got the cart in front of the horse as far as many consumers are concerned," wrote the first correspondent on Monday. "I suspect paying these surcharges [for meters] would be a lot easier if [consumers] had been consulted before utilities committed dollars on their behalf (choice) and then if they had a means to adjust their consumption to meet their own sense of balance, between cost, comfort and convenience (control). 

"I suspect many would feel less aggrieved than they do now. With more emphasis on collaboration and consultation with the end users in this system, I believe we will begin to see our way through to a future with more balance and harmony."

The next correspondent had less sympathy for consumers who don't "get it." 

"It bothers me when customers insist they have no choice when it comes to electricity," this writer wrote. "They most certainly do have a choice. They can buy power from a vendor or they can generate their own. Electric utilities are constantly bombarded with regulations on everything they do. I think there should not be an opt-out program for [meters]. The benefits of going to smart meters are incredible. And they are just the beginning of the technological revolution that is taking place for the power industry. It is absurd that people who are buying power get to have a direct say via regulation on what type of meter their power company will use."

Another faithful reader, Milton Scritsmier in Boulder, Colo., simply reviewed the basic facts in the case for the record. 

"It's a simple reality that it costs utilities more to generate power during peak periods," Scritsmier wrote. "To meet peak power needs they have to maintain expensive reserve capacity that sits idle at other times. Thus it's totally justified that utilities install smart meters and price higher during times of higher demand. It's just an accident of history that the technology wasn't able to do this before. Back when it actually cost money to make a long distance phone call, pricing was based on when you called as well as for how long. Everybody accepted that.

"On the other hand, does the utility need to know exactly what the consumer does with the power he or she consumes any more than the phone company needed to know what you were talking about? Once the consumer knows the price, he or she is fully capable of making usage decisions and scheduling use of major appliances. As a result, I think the best compromise is that smart meters should stop at the wall, and not reach into the house."

Jack Ellis of Tahoe City, Calif., added a dash of "what's in it for me." 

"Your correspondent [in the original column] apparently doesn't understand how the combination of an interval meter and time-based pricing means the financial benefits of doing what he would do anyway accrue to him rather than continuing to subsidize the habits of other consumers," Ellis wrote. "Of course, as you pointed out in your response, the most important reason for time-based pricing is to encourage changes in habits and capital investments on the consumer side of the meter (that could be as inexpensive as a whole-house fan) to help shift demand out of the peak periods—critical in California, where current annual load factors are in the low 50 percent range and continue to decline."

Another correspondent echoed what many in the industry have said to me, typically off -the-record. 

"In the rush to snag ARRA funds, far too many utilities neglected to sufficiently sell the benefits of smart meters to the most important constituency—their customers—or to provide the tools for their customers to reap tangible benefits once they were installed. It's no surprise there's been pushback."

Phil Carson 
Intelligent Utility Daily


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