could face higher tab
Cleveland Utilities customers who decline to have Automated Meter Reading units installed in their homes will pay an additional $10 per month opt-out rate on their energy bills if the measure is approved by the public utility’s board of directors.
The proposal was introduced in a recent Cleveland Board of Public Utilities session by CU President and CEO Tom Wheeler.
To date, CU crews and contractors have installed about 26,000 of the high-tech units that allow the utility to remote-read customers’ energy use for billing purposes. The installation project began in early 2011, and Wheeler believes the final phase will be finished by Oct. 1.
Once the entire CU service area has been completed, some 30,000 residential and commercial units will have been installed.
Of the 26,000 already hooked up — most of which are now providing remote-read data — only about 40 customers have opted out of having the devices connected, Wheeler explained. By the time all AMR units (which are also known as SmartMeters) are installed, some 100 customers are expected to have declined the high-tech meters, the CU president said.
Although AMR or AMI (Advanced Metering Infrastructure) technology is several years old and is being used globally, some oppose it and for a variety of reasons, Wheeler told board members. One of the most common complaints is safety based on exposure to radio frequency signals, the same type of technology used in cellphones.
Others who oppose AMR technology claim it can be used to control power and customers’ use of home appliances, and constitutes a form of privacy invasion. Each of these claims was made in 2011 by representatives of the Tea Party of Bradley County as Cleveland Utilities embarked on the installation project.
“Being a [public] utility, the last thing we want to create is a situation where we are in a confrontation-type mode,” Wheeler said. “It’s just not good for us. It’s not good for the customer. Hopefully, an opt-out rate will give those who do not want to participate at this time a choice.”
Customers who opt out of AMR connection will have the opportunity to have the new meters installed at their homes at a later date, Wheeler confirmed.
Wheeler told board members he was not looking for immediate action on the proposal yet. He said the utility company is still a few months away from needing to invoke the $10 opt-out rate. Such a recommendation will require board approval before it can be enacted.
The additional charge is intended to offset the cost of manual meter-reading which was one of CU’s original strategies in implementing AMR technology. Other reasons include preparation for the coming implementation by TVA of a new time-of-use energy rate structure, lowering the cost of monthly billing and reducing the amount of carbon emissions in the air caused by CU service trucks.
“Obviously, there will be additional meter-reading costs in reading these [old] meters [manually],” Wheeler told the board. “We feel strongly that [for] the customers where we read manually that we need to collect a charge for this. We will start it at $10. You may argue it’s not enough. You may argue it’s too much. What we plan to do is to put those customers in a specific route and monitor the costs.”
Through AMR technology, CU had hoped to curtail, and perhaps eliminate, manual meter-reading costs; however, customers who refuse to allow the automated meters to be installed in their homes will create the need for continued manual reading; at least, for the small number who retain their old meter technology.
Once the AMR installation is completed and CU has an accurate idea on the number of remaining manual-read meters, the utility will better understand its additional costs, Wheeler said.
“I would reserve the right to come back [to the board],” the CU president noted. “... If the cost is higher we would deal with it and if it is lower we would deal with it.”
He added, “Over time, we’ll a get a better handle on where that [opt-out rate] should be, but right now we think $10 is a very reasonable cost. That’s where we would like to start. We’re still several months away from needing to start ... it’s not the kind of thing that we’ve got to walk out of here today with some kind of an answer.”
In response to board members’ questions, Wheeler said the 40 opt-outs so far are scattered throughout the CU service area. Remaining ones will be as well. He said manually reading this number on a single route will require a full day’s work by a meter-reading technician, as well as fuel costs and wear and tear on a utility vehicle.
Wheeler said since CU’s AMR installation project began, he has learned customers have varying reasons for resisting the technology. In some cases, their unfamiliarity with AMRs makes them naturally reluctant, he noted.
“I would like to offer this opt-out rate, but at the same time I want to emphasize ... there are no safety problems associated with the technology we are using,” Wheeler said. “There’s been 36 million of these meters installed across the country and more are being installed every day. That probably represents 100 million people ... figuring one meter on a house and three [people] in a house.”
He pointed out, “I don’t know how many millions more around the world ... the technology is safe or we wouldn’t be using it.”
Although CU customers are being given the option of declining AMRs, Wheeler pointed out one drawback to their decision could be potential delays in having power restored to their homes in times of outages.
“The people without those [AMR] meters will be the last people reported [to CU] that their power’s out,” he said. Customers whose homes are serviced by an AMR, and who have a power outage, will be the first to be reported automatically to CU, Wheeler explained.
“If we’ve got [AMR] meters on all these other customers, when their power goes out, within minutes we’ll know about it,” he stressed. “We’ll know where they are and what time [their power] went out ... and we’ll know when they go back on. That [not having an AMR unit] will be a big drawback for the people who don’t have that technology.”
Another benefit to AMR technology is it will eventually allow CU customers to monitor their power, and eventually water, usage by obtaining real-time information through the use of a computer portal, he explained. Such monitoring will help customers to better control their energy and water costs, Wheeler said.
“I think over time the technology will prove itself,” Wheeler noted. “Any time you roll out a new technology, sometimes there is some fear of it.”
He added, “Over time, the technology will be there and people will get comfortable with it just like we’ve seen [with other] technology over the decades.”
In a five-part series published by the Cleveland Daily Banner in August and September 2011, regarding the new AMR technology to be used by CU, Volunteer Energy Cooperative leaders pointed to the efficiencies created by their company which began installing similar meters seven years ago. This included 17,500 electrical customers in Bradley County.
Although the VEC meters are similar in purpose, they operate differently from some SmartMeter technology in that energy-use data is transmitted over power lines and not via radio frequency waves, according to VEC spokespersons. VEC officials pointed out then the company received limited customer resistance. Some of the opposition, they reported, was based on what they described as “misinformation” nationwide about the new technology and about the type being deployed by the 17-county utility.
The VEC technology being used does not have the capability of limiting customer usage, collecting specific information about activities in the house or otherwise being invasive to the customer, according to VEC spokesman Robert McCarty who discussed the utility’s initiative in the Banner series.
VEC officials pointed to advantages to the AMR/AMI devices, some of which included improved billing accuracy, better customer service, lowering costs for manpower and fuel, and lowering the amount of carbon emissions into the air by reducing the number of service trucks needed for manual meter reading.