Despite some objections, Pennsylvania’s mandatory electricity smart meter rollout is ahead of schedule

Despite some objections, Pennsylvania’s mandatory electricity smart meter rollout is ahead of schedule

  • By John Finnerty CNHI State Reporter
  • 16 hrs ago

HARRISBURG — Starting the dishwasher, plugging in a hair-dryer or flicking on a light switch will register with utilities almost instantly when their customers are monitored by state-of-the-art electric meters.

So-called “smart meters” represent about four in 10 electric meters installed across the state, and utilities appear to be running ahead of schedule in introducing them before a 2023 deadline.

Upgraded meters that give electricity companies and their customers real-time information about energy use are long overdue, regulators say.

“Power is still billed the way it was 100 years ago,” said Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, spokesman for the state’s Public Utility Commission.

But consumer advocates cite downsides — including higher bills for some households.

Others complain that customers shouldn’t be forced to accept the technology, even though it’s required by a 2008 state energy conservation law.

Pennsylvania is slightly behind the curve in implementing smart meters.

The meters are installed in more than 90 percent of homes in Nevada and Maine, according to a separate study this spring. More than half of the homes in at least 16 states have them.

Pennsylvania’s progress is localized, with three of four smart meters installed in Philadelphia and its suburbs. In western Pennsylvania, PennPower has replaced old meters with the new technology, as well.

In most of the state, the rollout begins this summer and continues during the next four years.

The technology itself won’t translate into higher energy bills, say consumer advocates, lawmakers and industry officials. But it does allow utilities to charge based on the time of day, with higher rates for running appliances or the air conditioning when demand is greatest.

In some states, smart meters are indirectly tied to higher utility bills because of time-of-day pricing, said Pennsylvania Consumer Advocate Tonya McCloskey.

Peak periods — when prices are highest — usually come during weekdays.

Hagen-Frederiksen said time-of-day pricing is only offered in Pennsylvania now in pilot programs. As smart meters become more widespread, those programs will be replaced by plans available to more customers.

PPL Electric Utilities offer a time-of-day pricing option.

On Wednesday, Duquesne Light launched a one-year, time-of-day pricing pilot program for about one-quarter of its 588,000 customers in Allegheny and Beaver counties.

First Energy has no immediate plan for time-of-day pricing.

But under the state’s electric choice program, customers could eventually pick suppliers that do offer that pricing, said Aaron Reugg, spokesman for the Ohio-based parent company of four Pennsylvania electric companies — Penn Power, West Penn Power, Met-Ed and Penelec.

McCloskey said time-of-day pricing should remain optional. “There are some people who aren’t going to be able to turn down their air conditioning during the day,” she said.

The technology and a law requiring its use have stirred controversy for reasons unrelated to cost.

Rep. Mike Reese, R-Westmoreland County, has repeatedly introduced legislation to allow customers to refuse smart meters, or more broadly to repeal the mandate requiring utilities to install them.

Reese said it’s not government’s place to make decisions for people about what kind of technology they should adopt.

“For comparison, I like a Galaxy smartphone. This is like if Pennsylvania came in and said, ‘You have to use an iPhone,'” he said.

Neither proposal has gotten any traction in Harrisburg.

Reese said the measures have been stonewalled by Rep. Robert Godshall, R-Montgomery County, chairman of the House Consumer Affairs Committee.

In a written statement, Godshall said industry groups, the utility commission, the state consumer advocate and the state’s small business advocate all have expressed concerns about an opt-out bill.

Their objections center on the challenge of dispatching meter-readers to a handful of homes that opt out of smart meters.

In other states with opt-out provisions, utilities pass along exorbitant fees for the privilege.

Smart-meter technology has been a magnet for other concerns about health risks and privacy.

Regulators and industry officials say those worries are misguided. Cell phones produce more radiation than smart meters.

And the technology only monitors electricity usage. It cannot determine what someone is doing to consume power, Hagen-Frederiksen said.

“If you fire up your dishwasher and your power spikes, you know it’s the dishwasher,” he said. The power company doesn’t.

A bill barring utilities from selling data collected from meters passed the House in February without opposition. It’s awaiting action in the Senate.

Both the Public Utility Commission and consumer advocates say the meters can empower customers by providing more information more quickly than they would get with a monthly bill.

Electricity companies argue that the meters have other advantages. For one, they can pinpoint who’s affected by power outages.

And, if time-of-day pricing gets people to use less energy during peak periods, it will reduce strain on the electricity grid.

Even Reese, who has led the fight to allow consumers to refuse smart meters, acknowledges the benefits. When the installer comes to his house, he said, he wouldn’t opt out of a smart meter even if he could.

John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

MA-Special permitting process is fiscally rational precaution

Special permitting process is fiscally rational precaution

Posted Jun. 3, 2016 at 10:03 PM


I’ve been a Belmont resident for eight years, and serve on the faculty at Boston University School of Medicine, in the Departments of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and Biomedical Engineering. I lecture to medical, dental and graduate students about environmental risks to health. Given recent findings on cell phone antennas, I believe a special permitting process for the placement of cell phone antennas in residentially zoned areas, with particular attention paid to the proximity of antennas to homes, would be a prudent move for the town to adopt.

An early finding on the possible relationship between cell phone radiation and brain cancer was the 2010 finding that, in heavy cellular phone users who used their phone on predominantly on one side, was if they developed a brain tumor, it was more likely to occur on the side of the head that they used their phone [1].

In 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a 460 page review of all available data and came to the conclusion that cell phone radiation is properly classified as “possibly carcinogenic,” based on “Positive associations have been observed between exposure to radiofrequency radiation from wireless phones and glioma, and acoustic neuroma [2].”

Now, the National Toxicology Program / National Institutes of Health (NTP/NIH), have just published a $25 million study, one of the largest and most comprehensive explorations into health effects from cellphones [3], which found that radiation contributed to tumor formation in male rats.

Given that cell phones are a pervasive fact of modern life, what reasonable precautions should individuals and the town take? Individuals should use earbuds (corded or cordless) when speaking on the phone, and the town should perform careful due diligence before placing cell phone antennas in residential areas.

As the American Cancer Society reports, 42 percent of all people develop the cancer in their lifetime. If a cell phone tower is placed near 100 people, just by chance, 42 of them will develop a cancer. Given the findings by the WHO and NIH, any one of those citizens may wonder if the cell phone tower contributed to their disease, and possibly bring suit against the town. Even if the town wins every legal case, the legal costs associated with its defense could be significant.

Health and safety issues aside, a special permitting process seems like a reasonable and low-cost policy for the town to adopt in order to minimize future legal and financial exposures, before it chooses to place a WHO-labeled possible carcinogen in residentially zoned areas.

Martin Steffen lives on School Street in Belmont. Footnotes: 1. “Brain tumour risk in relation to mobile telephone use: results of the INTERPHONE international case-control study.” Int J Epidemiol 39, 675-94 (2010); 2. “Non-ionizing radiation, Part 2: Radiofrequency electromagnetic fields.” IARC Monogr Eval Carcinog Risks Hum 102, 1-460 (2013); 3. M. Wyde, M. Cesta, C. Blystone, S. Elmore, P. Foster, M. Hooth, G. Kissling, D. Malarkey, R. Sills, M. Stout, N. Walker, K. Witt, M. Wolfe, J. Bucher, “Report of Partial findings from the National Toxicology Program Carcinogenesis Studies of Cell Phone Radiofrequency Radiation in Hsd: Sprague Dawley® SD rats (Whole Body Exposure).” bioRxiv (2016).

State regulators agree to another BGE rate increase, though less than utility sought

State regulators agree to another BGE rate increase, though less than utility sought

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. won approval from state regulators Friday for its fifth rate increase since 2010 — albeit one that is about half what the utility initially requested for its residential customers.

The increase granted by the state Public Service Commission is expected to boost the average residential customer’s monthly bill by about $7.53. The new rates go into effect immediately.

The decision satisfied neither BGE nor its opponents, who have maintained that customers should be seeing lower bills, given low inflation rates and lower energy costs.

“It tells me that they didn’t need it all,” said the Rev. Dr. Alvin Gwynn Sr. of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Baltimore, who testified against the increase.

BGE approached the commission last year with its request, which would have raised more than $200 million — about $15 on a typical monthly residential bill. Among other costs, the utility sought to recoup $140 million for smart meter investments and $30 million for increased fees to use Baltimore’s underground conduit system.

Commissioners, describing the request as “unusually large,” denied rate increases to pay for the higher conduit fees, noting that BGE’s dispute with the city over the fees is ongoing.

The panel also ruled that the utility could not recover $48 million in costs related to smart meters. It also extended the timeline for BGE to recoup its investment from five years to 10 years.

“Although we find that BGE has shown the smart grid system to be cost-beneficial, we are extremely concerned about the level of increase that ratepayers will experience,” the commission wrote in its order. “We believe it is appropriate to take steps to ease rate shock to the fullest extent possible.”

Case said he doesn’t think customers are fatigued by rate increases.

“If customers’ bills were going up overall, that would be more likely, but the overall bill is going down and customers are using less energy,” he said. “The overall direction of customers’ bills are going down and not up, and smart grid helps with that. Customer satisfaction is at a record high, the reliability has improved.”

The latest proposal would raise the rate of a typical electric customer by 6 percent, or $7.64 a month, and that of the average gas customer by 11 percent, or $7.56 a month.

That’s about the size of all rate increases approved by the PSC in the past six years. Those have increased the average customer’s bill by $7.76 per month for electric service and $7.69 for gas service, or slightly less for customers getting both.

BGE asked the Public Service Commission to determine the size of a surcharge for the increased conduit costs and whether it would be applied only to Baltimore residents or to all BGE customers.

The PSC’s decision is expected in June.

By law, BGE is allowed to recoup what it spends on capital upgrades, but the utility must prove that the outlays were necessary.

The utility said it has largely finished installing 1.7 million smart meters, from which usage data is collected remotely, eliminating the need for meter readers.

When the PSC approved the smart meter plan in 2010, it denied BGE’s request for a monthly surcharge, telling the utility to demonstrate that the system’s benefits were greater than its costs.

BGE spent about $500 million on the smart grid system, which was offset by a $200 million grant from the federal government.

The new smart grid has led to energy and money savings through programs like Energy Savings Days, in which customers reduce their use on days when energy use is expected to be very high and get a bill credit in return, according to BGE. The utility had four Energy Savings Days in 2015.

Utility officials also contend that the smart meter system allows customers to more closely track their usage and thus find ways to cut down.

And the new system allows BGE to be more efficient, they said. For instance, it allows the utility to “ping” meters to determine if they are in service during a storm, cutting down on the need to send out manned service trucks to check for outages.

Earlier this week, BGE reported that more customers than expected were opting out of having smart meters installed, about 4 percent of the total compared to the anticipated 1 percent. Customers who opt out of the smart meters must pay a monthly fee, and they must pay any rate increase the PSC approves.

Dan Ervin, a finance professor at Salisbury University, called smart meters “good investments” because they enable both BGE and customers to be more efficient. He said keeping the legacy analog meter system, which required more than 100 meter readers to maintain, would have been more expensive over the long run.

“In general it’s something that we’re just going to have to accept,” Ervin said.

Others dismissed the supposed benefits of the new smart grid system. Kate Kheel, vice president of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness, a group that opposes meters because members believe they are unhealthy and invasive, said few people really pay attention to Energy Savings Days or other programs.

“I turn my air conditioner down to 62 at night,” Kheel said. “I don’t need a smart meter to tell me to do that.”

Paula Carmody, head of the consumer advocate Office of People’s Counsel, said her office would hire experts to comb through BGE’s proposal and challenge any unnecessary increases.

“It is a very significant rate increase for our customers and our households that have combined gas and electric,” she said. “They are asking for a profit level that’s much higher than we think is reasonable, that will likely be challenged.”

Carmody also said her office would closely examine BGE’s request for a surcharge for the conduit increase.

In September, the city’s Board of Estimates approved more than tripling the rate BGE pays to use the underground conduit system. BGE sued the city last month over the matter, asking a court to ensure that the increase would be only used to upgrade the conduit system and not to balance the city’s budget.

The utility previously said that residential consumers in Baltimore could face a surcharge of $8 a month for the conduit, while commercial electric consumers in the city could face surcharges of $15 to $3,350 a month, depending on their usage.

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