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Plugged In: The Hype Over Smart Meters in Ohio

PHOTO: The use of smart meter technology is growing in Ohio, but some warn the risks to consumer protections outweigh any potential benefits for utility customers. Photo credit: M. Kuhlman.
PHOTO: The use of smart meter technology is growing in Ohio, but some warn the risks to consumer protections outweigh any potential benefits for utility customers. Photo credit: M. Kuhlman.
September 2, 2014

FINDLAY, Ohio - The number of Ohio homes plugged into smart meters is growing, allowing utilities to collect and monitor usage information.

Utilities are touting the ability of customers to monitor their energy consumption, but some consumer advocates are voicing concerns about the risk smart meters pose to basic consumer protections.

Dave Rinebolt, executive director with Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy, says various pilot programs have shown mixed results, with half of smart meter customers paying more and the other half paying less, with savings of $20 a month at the most.

"There's a lot of promise associated with smart meters. They're pretty whiz-bang new technology," says Rinebolt. "But the reality is, as we look at their deployment across the state, they're really nothing more than a smarter cash register and they're better at taking money out of your pocket."

Ninety percent of Duke Energy customers have smart meters, while American Electric Power (AEP) has about 100,000 customers with smart meters, and plans to expand to another 900,000. First Energy has about 30,000 of its customers on smart meters. Ohio utilities can charge a fee to customers who refuse the meters, and AEP is already proposing a $30 per month rate. Duke Energy wants to charge $1,000 upfront, with a rate of $40 per month to follow.

Sally Thelen, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy says a monthly fee is needed for the additional resources needed to maintain non-standard meters, including physical visits to homes to perform services that can now be done remotely for those with smart meters.

Rinebolt says about one-third of Ohio utility customers will, at some point, receive a disconnect notice. While utility companies are required to send someone to the home on the day of disconnect to give the customer a chance to pay and keep their electricity on, Rinebolt says smart meters could end that option.

"We're concerned the desire to more quickly disconnect customers will lead to the elimination of some protections that help customers pay at the last minute and stay connected to their system," says Rinebolt.

While utilities tout the ability of customers to save money by monitoring and adjusting power usage during peak times with smart meters, Rinebolt says it's more hassle than it's worth.

"Consumers are pretty busy," he says. "You don't have time to watch your electricity usage on an hour-by-hour basis, and the meters don't really tell you until the next day what you used the previous day."

Rinebolt adds that in one smart meter pilot project, more than 100,000 people were contacted about smart meters - and less than 200 wanted to participate.

Thelen responded they've had positive feedback from most of the Duke customers using smart meter technology. “While there are a handful of those that are resistant to the technology, we've had a very successful deployment plan in our 5 year process that began in earnest in 2009.”

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - OH