MICHIGAN-Smart meters and silent hikes

  • Doug Spade and Mike Clement: Smart meters and silent hikes

  • Utility policy changes in Michigan a cause for concern
  • Utility policy changes in Michigan a cause for concern

The smart meters are coming, and we are none too happy about it. No, we have not been hanging out in Area 51. Nor do we represent the Tin Foil Hat Guild. But Consumers Energy is not our favorite utility these days. The pending arrival of smart meters is one reason. This month’s rate increase is another. The one the Michigan Public Service Commission (PSC) has not yet approved. You didn’t know about it? You can thank the Michigan legislature for letting it happen. And after the smart meters are in place, newer, even bigger increases will be possible.

It used to be utilities could not raise rates until the PSC determined they were justified — a process that often took up to a year. Unwilling to wait that long, electric and gas companies convinced the legislature in 2008 to change the law. Through self-implementation, utilities can now start imposing higher charges months before the PSC makes their final ruling. And on June 4, Consumers Energy did just that — self-implementing — very, very quietly — a $110 million rate increase. No public announcement. No press release. Even the PSC — the agency that is supposed to be looking out for the public’s interest — stayed silent.

All of this really bothered Public Service Commissioner Greg White, who wanted to know why the PSC was not more forthcoming. According to the MIRS news service in Lansing, an agency spokesperson said no announcement is required until the PSC rules on the full $160 million rate hike request Consumers Energy filed this past December. That probably won’t happen for another five or six months. Aside from this column, about the only way customers will know their rates have gone up is by looking at their next bill. The company says it will include a message about the increase with it.

It will cost most households several dollars more per month and pay for plant upgrades, maintenance and repairs. But it will also be used to buy and install smart meters which, as this newspaper recently reported, will start happening in Lenawee County next year.

Smart meters have digital displays and let the power company know precisely how much electricity you are using every hour. No longer will a meter reader gather monthly usage data. Instead it will be automatically collected, and a communication chip in the meter will transmit the current readings directly to the utility. A very nice lady at a Consumers Energy call center tried to convince us how wonderful it will be for people to go online to see these hourly updates. We would prefer to read the meter ourselves and get the same information through a simple mathematical formula called subtraction.

Instantaneous data collection from smart meters is too Big Brotherish for our taste. Analysis will show when people use more electricity, and the utilities can then seek much higher rates during those times. Some parts of Michigan already have these “time of use” rates in place, and the PSC is encouraging even greater use of them. Customers signing up for this option pay a much higher rate for power usage during certain hours and a lower rate at others. But it could easily become mandatory, making air conditioning or heat at times extremely expensive. Same for cooking for doing the laundry.

http://www.lenconnect.com/article/20150626/OPINION/150629380

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