Despite some objections, Pennsylvania’s mandatory electricity smart meter rollout is ahead of schedule
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.