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Sierra Daily

May 11, 2012

Smart Meters, Dumb Utilities

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Why do consumers hate smart meters? In the current Sierra, contributing writer Dashka Slater examines the backlash--from Tea Partiers who see them as a U.N. plot, to Marinites who blame their radio frequency radiation for a host of ills. That backlash is now so large, reports Mark Chediak for Bloomberg, that it's delaying a $29 billion program to upgrade the U.S. electricity grid. Iowa's MidAmerican Energy says it's going to hold off on deploying smart meters "while it assesses how other power companies address complaints"; Alliant Energy is taking it slow off too, while the state of Connecticut has put Northeast Utilities' proposal to install 1.2 million smart meters on hold while it comes up with a state policy.

Meanwhile, in California, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison are rolling out 10.3 million smart meters--but have had to agree to let customers keep their traditional meters for an initial $75 fee, and an extra $10 a month added to their bills.

Fears of U.N. conspiracies and radio waves aside, the utilities have only themselves to blame for public recalcitrance. The devices were initially touted as offering consumers a way to save money, but the time-of-use pricing mechanisms necessary to enact such a system have yet to be put in place. (It didn't help that initially many of the meters were overcharging consumers.)  The utilities, meanwhile, are saving buckets of money by laying off meter-readers, but are still passing on the costs of the smart meters to consumers. True, consumers can see groovy, extremely detailed graphic representations of their power usage, but that and $2 will buy you a coffee at Starbucks.

In Bloomberg, Mark Toney of the consumer advocacy Utility Reform Network suggests that the appropriate model for pricing smart meters should be like pricing Internet connections. "We kind of like the model for broadband, where nobody is forced to take it, but people see the value in it and are willing to pay more for it." Instead, the utilities gave consumers nothing, and charged them for it. No wonder some of them are hostile.

Illustration for Sierra by Chris Gash

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

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