Pa. House panel skeptical of opt-out plan on `smart meters’

Posted: May 09, 2012

A proposal that would allow Pennsylvania utility customers to opt out of having “smart meters” installed in their houses generated little support Tuesday at a hearing in Harrisburg.

Members of the House Consumer Affairs Committee expressed bipartisan skepticism about the need for legislation that would modify a 2008 law that gives utilities 15 years to install smart meters, which allow them to monitor usage in real time at a household level and to charge hourly prices to customers who choose time-of-use rates.

Opposition to the two-way meters, which can take readings every few minutes, has emerged in pockets across the country from customers concerned about the loss of privacy, government mandates, and alleged health issues related to wireless data transmissions.

“I guess it’s an antigovernment phenomenon going on out there, but government is necessary in some cases,” Robert W. Godshall (R., Montgomery), the committee’s chairman, said in an interview. He said opposition was being led by some members of the tea party.

“Why is it there are people who would want to go back to yesteryear?” asked Rep. Joseph Preston Jr., the committee’s Democratic chair.

Members of the panel, which approved the meter mandate in 2008, said remote-metering technology had been in use for decades. Peco Energy Co., the Philadelphia utility, converted its 1.6 million customers to remote wireless meters in 2003, allowing the company to phase out meter readers. This year, it began installing “advanced metering infrastructure,” though Peco has stopped calling the devices “smart meters.”

Godshall, who lives near Souderton, is a customer of PPL Electric Utilities, which installed bidirectional smart meters for its 1.4 million customers a decade ago. PPL’s devices transmit hourly meter readings on its power lines rather than by radio.

“I haven’t heard a single complaint in all the 12 years,” Godshall said. “I don’t understand why all of a sudden it has become an issue.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Reese (R., Westmoreland), who was elected after the legislature approved the Act 129 conservation law that included the smart-meter mandate, said opposition in his Western Pennsylvania district emerged after the utility First Energy began to charge customers a separate fee in its bills to pay for its smart-meter program.

“Many of our constituents are asking us to address these concerns,” he said.

“The issue that I have is that it’s a government mandate,” Reese said. “Whenever it’s driven by the marketplace, consumer choice, that’s healthy, that’s good. But when it becomes unhealthy is when there’s a government mandate to do so. ”

But smart-meter advocates say that the devices are the natural technological extension of advances in electrical-distribution systems and that nothing in the law requires customers to choose the hourly rates that will become available with the adoption of the “smart grid.”

Representatives of the state Public Utility Commission (PUC), the Pennsylvania Office of the Consumer Advocate, PPL, and several trade groups testified that smart meters let utilities more closely monitor electric-distribution systems and to respond more quickly to outages.

They said that allowing a few customers to opt out would create the need for two separate data-collection systems, offsetting the savings of the smart-meter systems. If the legislature some customers opt out, they argued, the customers who want the old meters should bear the higher costs.

Terrence J. Fitzpatrick, president of the Energy Association of Pennsylvania, a utility trade group, said privacy concerns are not a worry. Utilities, by law, already closely guard confidential customer information, he said, and can release usage data to a third party only with the customer’s consent.

State Consumer Advocate Irwin A. “Sonny” Popowsky, along with industry representatives, said government can address privacy concerns better through stricter regulations rather than allowing some customers to opt out of the meters.

Contact Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or amaykuth@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @Maykuth.

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