The new-generation meters are equipped for two-way communication with the utility, allowing for more sophisticated billing, grid management and outage control. A 2008 Pennsylvania law requires large utilities such as Peco to switch over to smart meters no later than 2024.
Confidence in Peco's program was shaken last year after several of the new electronic devices overheated and caught fire. After the fires, which Peco called "meter events," the utility suspended the program for two months and replaced 186,000 newly installed devices with equipment from another manufacturer.
Peco resumed installations in October and says 600,000 meters will be installed by June, concluding the first phase of the program. In the second phase, Peco would install 1.2 million more meters (some customers have more than one).
Despite Peco's efforts to get its program back on course, smart meters continue to generate anxiety.
Peco spokeswoman Liz Williamson acknowledged Friday that a Feb. 27 fire on Knox Road in Tredyffrin Township occurred a few hours after the utility installed one of its new meters. She said the fire originated in the meter panel on the home, not the meter itself.
She said that the act of pulling out the old meter "may have jarred loose some defective part of the meter base," which she said was the property of the homeowner.
"I think it's important to note that this type of event could have happened with any type of meter, since it originated in the meter base," said Williamson.
"It sounds like they're trying to make it look like it's our fault," said homeowner Jennifer Lowden, who has been living with her husband, two daughters and their dog in a motel until smoke damage is repaired.
Lowden said she was preparing dinner at about 6 p.m. on Feb. 27 when the lights flickered, the appliances buzzed and the meter mounted outside burst into flames. "I just grabbed my kids with no shoes on and got them out of the house," she said.
News about the fire spread to other communities. Michael DiDomenico, a Westtown resident, is building his campaign for township supervisor on fears about smart meters.
The PUC initiated a formal investigation after last year's fires, but the inquiry is focused on whether Peco prudently implemented its smart-meter program, not on the wisdom of adopting the technology. The commission's enthusiasm for the devices is undiminished.
PUC Chairman Robert F. Powelson on Tuesday touted smart meters at the PA/NJ Sustainability Symposium at Temple University, saying fears about smart meters are unfounded. The PUC hopes that smart-meter customers will embrace proposed time-of-use pricing plans, which would induce them to shift loads to off-peak hours.
Powelson encouraged the 800 people attending the conference to ask Peco for an expedited installation of a smart meter, for a $17 fee. Powelson said that the utility had installed one on his Kennett Square home and "it hasn't caught fire."
Anxiety about alleged health risks and privacy losses from the wireless devices has prompted protests and hampered installation programs in some states. Anti-meter bloggers have paid close attention to Peco's misadventures.
Legislation in Pennsylvania modeled on exemptions in other states would allow customers to decline a smart meter, though they would have to pay the cost of having the utility send an employee every month to take a reading. The industry opposes those opt-out measures, saying that they would undermine the effectiveness of having a uniform meter system.
The new smart meters are replacing wireless remote-read meters that Peco installed more than a decade ago. The new generation allows for more frequent readings - every 15 minutes - and also allows for remote shut-offs.
The first phase of Peco's meter installation program cost about $313 million and was supported by a $200 million U.S. Energy Department stimulus grant.
In its request to accelerate installation of the smart meters, which was filed with the PUC in January, Peco said that it was still negotiating with the vendor, Sensus Metering Systems Inc. of Raleigh, N.C., the "cost responsibility" for replacing the meters.
Peco said it spent $35 million buying and installing the Sensus smart meters - about $16 million of that came from the federal grant. After the fires, the Sensus meters were replaced with equipment manufactured by Landis & Gyr A.G.
Peco says the second phase of its plan consists mostly of installing 1.2 million more meters, since the utility has already developed the communications backbone behind the system.
Peco customers are paying for the devices through a surcharge embedded in their electric rates. It amounts to 0.31 cents per kilowatt hour this year, or about $1.53 a month for a customer using 500 kilowatt hours.
Contact Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947, @Maykuth or firstname.lastname@example.org.