Excerpted from “Summer of Discontent,” Fortnightly’s August 2010 Frontlines column.
As America approaches summer’s Dog Days, the debate over smart meters is heating up. Utilities in at least four states are facing public backlash against smart-meter rollouts — and that’s not counting the class-action lawsuits previously filed against Oncor and Pacific Gas & Electric in Texas and Bakersfield, Calif., respectively.
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA: About 60 residents picketed offices of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in San Francisco on July 20, carrying protest signs and chanting such slogans as, “One, two, three, four, smart meters no more.” The demonstrators voiced concerns about privacy and personal choice issues, as well as the meters’ radio-frequency transmissions and their possible effect on human health. Several local governments in Northern California, including Berkeley, Marin County, Santa Cruz and San Francisco, petitioned PG&E to stop its smart-meter rollout pending further public hearings and studies.
The Marin Independent Journal published an editorial on July 20 that stated, “Forcing your customers to do something without first making sure they are comfortable with it is not the best way to run a business.”
MARYLAND: Executives at Baltimore Gas & Electric were stunned when the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) decided in June to deny the company’s DOE-funded smart-grid investment plan. The decision came in the midst of a heated gubernatorial campaign, in which Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) is campaigning on a theme of green jobs, while former Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) accuses the O’Malley administration of killing jobs with anti-business regulations. Against this backdrop, BGE petitioned for expedited re-hearing and amended its plan to address the PSC’s concerns—most notably by deferring and limiting BGE’s proposed capital-expense “tracker”; eliminating shareholder incentives for achieving demand-reduction targets; accelerating the depreciation of the new meters; making time-of-use rates voluntary instead of mandatory; and proposing a customer communication and education plan. The commission agreed to schedule hearings for early August.
OHIO: The Westerville city council voted in a meeting on July 20 to postpone a final vote on the municipal utility’s federal stimulus-funded smart-grid project. Chairman Mike Heyeck announced afterward that the postponement would allow the council to field questions and comments from Westerville residents, and to “provide additional opportunity to learn more about advanced metering” via a series of public events and outreach efforts.
The council’s decision came in the wake of growing public discontent, expressed at a July 6 city council meeting, where the residents who showed up spoke overwhelmingly against smart meters. ThisWeek newspaper quoted resident Charles Voight Jr. expressing outrage over the remote disconnection capabilities of smart meters, and the city’s decision to accept federal stimulus dollars. “This process seems to have been predetermined, with the grants being applied for without the public giving their full consent,” Voight reportedly said. “I personally will not let you into my home, remember that.”
Andy Boatright, electric utility manager for the city of Westerville, told Fortnightly in a phone interview that many of the 30-plus people who have expressed opposition to the project have focused on the federal government’s role. “I think it’s primarily a function of the federal grant,” Boatright said.
COLORADO: Xcel Energy awaits a decision by the Boulder city council on whether to recommend that voters renew Xcel’s utility franchise. That’s right; the celebrated Smart Grid City might actually walk away from its utility partner.
Xcel’s 20-year agreement expires at the end of 2010, and the utility wants Boulder to sign up for another 20 years. But surveys indicate voters would reject such an agreement, as well as an alternative plan that would impose an excise tax on Xcel—which the company would pass through to customers in monthly bills. Council members reportedly are considering municipalizing Boulder’s utility services if voters reject both initiatives.
Negative public sentiment over Xcel’s franchise agreement might be tied to the company’s Smart Grid City project, which has encountered its share of problems—from ballooning capital costs to disappointing participation in its demand-response program. Xcel CEO Dick Kelley told Fortnightly in June, “There’s huge value on the utility side of the meter, but it hasn’t been that successful on the customer side. I guess some people thought Boulder residents were super-environmentalists, but in fact they just want their TV to work and their beer to be cold when they get home.”-Michael T. Burr