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Smart meter controversy could cost consumers

It hasn’t generated much stir in Ohio yet, but controversy over the installation of “smart meters” at homes and businesses could end up costing some ratepayers here.

Last month, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio proposed a measure to allow ratepayers to opt out of the new technology. But if someone wants to keep the old meter, they risk a yet to be determined charge from their natural gas of electric utility provider, according to PUCO’s proposal.

Some ratepayers have expressed privacy concerns about the meters, worried that the technology will reveal details about their households. Utilities have said the concerns are unwarranted and the information is kept confidential in the same way that bills are kept private.

The meters allow a close analysis of household and business energy consumption, can pinpoint outages, and help a utility restore power more easily. A smarter electric grid also promises to ease the integration of renewable sources of power such as solar and wind. The meters can note power consumption at 15 minute intervals.

Nothing is final yet on the PUCO proposal. It must be adopted by the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review before becoming effective and the committee has yet to schedule it for consideration.

Ohio’s major utilities, including Dayton Power & Light, Duke Energy Ohio, and First Energy, parent company of Ohio Edison, submitted testimony to PUCO with concerns about the opt out option.

“DP&L strongly objects to the proposed rules requiring an opt-out program for advanced meter installations,” the utility told PUCO, saying meters are used “for safety purposes, meter access issues, tamper detection or efficiency purposes. A customer should not be able to determine what type of meter they require at their premises.”

Other utilities are at various stages of installing the high-tech meters, but DP&L hasn’t begun yet. It has said it will file an application with PUCO detailing a rollout by July 1. Duke is 90 percent complete, having installed close to 1 million electric and natural gas meters with about 100,000 more to go to complete the job by year’s end, spokeswoman Sally Thelen said.

DP&L didn’t respond to a request for comment.

AEP-Ohio has installed 110,000 smart meters in central Ohio. First Energy in 2011 launched a pilot program to deploy 5,000 meters to Cleveland Electric Illuminating ratepayers and said it may install an additional 39,000 meters by the end of this year.

The Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, a watchdog for ratepayers, finds merit in opt-out. Ratepayers have raised the privacy issues with the Counsel.

“This 21st-century technology could help consumers control their energy use and help utilities detect service outages. But some customers worry that the information collected by the new meters will violate their privacy,” Marty Berkowitz, spokesman for the Counsel, said. “The PUCO’s ruling protects customers by allowing them to choose to keep their traditional meter.”

The PUCO proposal, which the Counsel advised on, also mandates that utility companies comprehensively explain smart metering to ratepayers as well as their choices.

Thelen said only a few customers have expressed concerns about the meters. “We just take each person on a case-by-case basis,” Thelen said. “Usually, it comes down to educating them on technology.”

Duke meters transmit information via the household connection and don’t use radio signals, she said.

The smart meter technology has a local business connection. Miami Twp.-Based data warehousing company Teradata technology is helping utility companies analyze data produced by the meters and power grids. It’s announced partnerships with large global utility companies, including California-based Pacific Gas and Electric and Siemans Smartgrid Division of Nuremberg, Germany.

Teradata’s customers include U.K.-based Centrica, GDF Suez of France, Southern California Edison and Oklahoma Gas & Electric.

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