New Mexico: Los Alamos County mandates Smart Meters

From the Los Alamos Monitor

No opt-out for Smart Meters
Advocating action > McLin advocates for class-action suit against DPU
By Arin McKenna
Sunday, July 31, 2016

At its July 20 meeting, the Los Alamos County Board of Public Utilities (BPU) voted 4-1 against an opt-out option for Smart Meters. Stephen McLin voted against the motion.

According to the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) staff report, distributed energy resources such as roof-top solar are changing the face of the industry, and new options such as micro-grids, distributed energy resource management technologies and demand response programs for managing peak electricity demand more efficiently and economically are on the horizon.

Rate structures are also changing to provide options such as demand/response, time-of-use metering and value of solar tariffs (which credits customers for home solar generation).

Smart Meters, which allow two-way communication between the utility and the customer, are central to implementing those changes.

DPU plans to replace all electric meters with Smart Meters in FY2018. Gas and water meters will also be replaced with remotely read meters.

“When we get to the full deployment of these radio reads in our system, our plan is to not have meter readers at all anymore,” DPU Manager Tim Glasco told the board. “So that begs the question of what do we do if someone has strong feelings about having a radio transmitter on their meters at their house?”

DPU staff estimates that approximately 100 out of 8,000 households would opt out, based on how many opted out of a Smart Meter study on Barranca and North mesas.

According to Glasco, the main concern for those opting out are possible health impacts from having RF transmissions near their home. Glasco noted that numerous studies have failed to demonstrate any adverse health effects.

The other major concern is that someone could access data from the customer’s meter. The staff report points out that Smart meters “have extremely advanced data encryption and security protocols” and that there is no evidence that anyone has hacked into a smart meter data transmission and used the information for nefarious purposes.

Vice Chair Andrew Fraser was concerned that current law identifies utility billing as public records that must be released upon request, and that someone could use that information to determine when a customer is home.

Staff estimates that maintaining a half-time meter reader who would have to travel to widely spaced households and manually enter data into the system would cost an average of $20 per month per opt-out customer. They recommended that those customers shoulder that cost if the board allowed an opt-out option.

Based on his initial calculations, Deputy Utilities Manager for Finance and Administration Robert Westervelt does not anticipate that eliminating meter readers would significantly reduce the customer service fees, since other services such as billing and recovering the initial cost for the meters are encompassed in those fees.

McLin demanded that the department provide a cost/benefit study.

Where is the cost savings for the customer? It’s all for the department’s benefit,” McLin said. “And we’re sitting here talking about rate increases next month for water and for gas (gas rates are actually expected to lower), and I’m telling you you’re electrical rates are going to skyrocket if you let these meters go through.

“I’m strongly against making these things mandatory. You’re risking a class action lawsuit, I think, against the utilities department for not letting customers be able to opt out and pay whatever the department determines is a cost.”

McLin supported his statement about skyrocketing costs by providing his estimate of that: $9 million to replace all 8,000 meters, based on an arbitrary figure of $500 per meter and $500 per installation. He said he did not know what the actual cost would be.

According to Westervelt, the average Smart Meter costs $140 (non-Smart Meters average $120). He noted that the cost of gas and water meters combined was less that the cost of the electric meter.

[Chairman Jeff] Johnson asked Glasco if rates were likely to go up because of the Smart Meters.

“We do not anticipate that, no,” Glasco responded.

Board Member Kathleen Taylor noted some potential savings for customers.

“When you have Smart Meters, you can have time-of-use rates, you can have demand rates, you can use that to try to tailor demands on the system so that you don’t have to have the wild fluctuations in usage, and that should help to lower the cost of electricity for everyone,” Taylor said. “So I think that they have many benefits.”

“All I’m asking is show me the dollars, where we get the cost savings. Prove it to me,” McLin said.

Westervelt confirmed that there were potential benefits for the customer, although he was unable to provide a dollar amount. The idea is to provide customers with a suite of rate options so they can choose the one that would save them the most money. Westervelt noted additional benefits such as leak detection and allowing a prepay option.

Only those with the two-way communication of Smart Meters could take advantage of those options.

The primary reason to do this is for benefit to the customer base in total,” Westervelt said. “The benefit to the utility is that we can provide better, more cost effective service to our customers.”

McLin suggested reducing the opt-out cost by allowing customers to read their own meters, with DPU staff confirming those readings with quarterly meter readings. Glasco replied that most customers can read gas and electric meters but not water.

McLin also challenged charging opt-out customers a service fee when the board voted against charging home solar customers a Cost of Service fee in 2014, deciding that the entire rate structure for maintaining electrical infrastructure needed to be revisited.

Citizens opposing that fee argued that rooftop solar provides cost-saving benefits to customers at large.

McLin then asked at what rate new meters failed, noting that his meters are nearly 30 years old. According to Glasco, the lifespan for both batteries and water meters is 20 years and gas meters are 30 years.

McLin made a motion to table the item until a cost/benefit analysis was provided, which failed for lack of a second. He then turned to the audience and said,

“I hope the customers out there are taking note of who is in favor of this and who is not,” McLin said. “I would really like to see a class action lawsuit against this, I really would.”

Johnson called him to order.

Although both Fraser and Johnson expressed some reservations about requiring every customer to have a Smart Meter, McLin was the only one who voted against the motion.

“I think Mr. McLin’s points about forcing people to do this are compelling, and I’m somewhat split on voting to force someone to go over to the Smart Meters,” Johnson said.

“However, I also think it’s a little unfair to the department to have to cater to a small subset of customers. I think it will ultimately be a dwindling subset of customers, and we’re going to have to cross this bridge eventually when you get down to 20 or 10 or however many folks are left. There are going to be some people who are forced to switch over.

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