Iowa Utilities Board: Alliant can’t charge opt-out fee for smart meters at this time

Iowa Utilities Board: Alliant can’t charge opt-out fee for smart meters at this time

A bank of smart meters, one for each unit, is installed at Monroe Place in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

A bank of smart meters, one for each unit, is installed at Monroe Place in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

 

Last year, Wendy Hartman opted out of Alliant Energy’s growing network of smart meters — knowing she could see increased charges on her utility bill as a result.

However, a Wednesday ruling by the Iowa Utilities Board denied Alliant’s proposal to implement an extra charge for residential customers who opt out of the utility company’s advanced meter infrastructure. The ruling marks a victory for those opposed to smart meters — at least for now.

“I’m pleasantly surprised,” said Hartman, who has lived in Cedar Rapids for more than 20 years. “I’m really appreciative of the people in the community who spoke up with their dissatisfaction with the meters.”

On Wednesday, the Iowa Utilities Board rejected Alliant’s proposed electric and natural gas tariffs, which included charging an extra $15 per month if customers choose to stick with their existing meter.

However, the board ruled Wednesday that tariffs must allow residential customers the ability to opt out of advanced metering infrastructure — free of charge, at this time. Meter-reading costs are part of customers’ base rates, the board notes.

An opt-out option will not be available for non-residential customers or those involved in an optional, non-standard rate.

What’s more, the ruling directs Alliant to allow an area-wide opt-out option.

Alliant Spokesman Justin Foss said the ruling likely won’t affect a large number of customers, as 99.7 percent of Alliant’s Iowa customers have been accepting of smart meters.

He added that the ruling does not prohibit the utility from charging those who opt out entirely.

“Historically, regulated utilities are required to charge the customers for the costs that they cause,” Foss said. “This order does not say we cannot charge, but it must go through the rate case process. There could be a charge in the future.”

The Wednesday statement from the Iowa Utilities Board reiterates that it “does not preclude Alliant from seeking a customer charge or fee for its opt-out tariff as part of future rate cases.”

As of December, Alliant had deployed smart meters on about 335,000 of its roughly 500,000 meters in Iowa. The utility switched its roughly 470,000 Wisconsin customers to smart meters about a decade ago.

The meters send data back to the company, allowing it to better detect power outages so energy can be restored more quickly and provide more accurate information to customers in their energy bills.

Alliant officials have said smart meters provide a cost savings, as they do not need to be read manually every month.

With that in mind, the utility proposed in its tariffs fees for those wishing to stick with their existing meters, which have become non-standard equipment.

Opponents of smart meters — some of whom have raised concerns of security, privacy and public health — have argued that participation in advanced meter infrastructure should be optional and opting out shouldn’t come with added costs.

Meanwhile in the Iowa Legislature, Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Fairfield, has pushed a bill that would provide statewide protections for area residents opposed to smart meters.

Shipley said he was happy to see Wednesday’s ruling, noting that he is not anti-utility but instead wants to see an atmosphere that is fair for both the utilities and the customers.

“I was very impressed with the Iowa Utilities Board, and to me this proves, in a sense, that the system works,” he said. “Concerned citizens can stand toe to toe with billion-dollar corporations and win. They can have their voices heard.”

Shipley said the ruling might force a few minor updates to his bill, but he still plans to push for statewide rules on smart meters.

The bill would prevent a utility company from charging a customers extra fees for opting out of smart meters or providing discounts to customers who choose smart meters.

l Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

https://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/business/alliant-energy-cedar-rapids-iowa-utilities-board-smart-meters-20190206

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