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Utilities Try to Tame the Backlash Against Smart Meters

As consumers balk, utilities are tacking on surcharges for holdouts
Traditional electric meters sit on a worktable in a Southern California Edison meter service center, where new 'smart' meters are being tested
Traditional electric meters sit on a worktable in a Southern California Edison meter service center, where new 'smart' meters are being testedPhotograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

For the past decade, the power industry has pitched the benefits of so-called smart meters, promising lower bills and more control over energy use. Lately, though, some consumers have started pushing back, saying the gadgets compromise privacy, raise costs rather than cut them, and threaten health with electromagnetic fields from the radios the meters use to transmit data. The backlash has slowed improvements to the nation’s power grid as some utilities hold off on rollout plans while regulators weigh the potential benefits against the cost of the programs, expected to reach nearly $29 billion nationwide by 2015.

To keep installations on track, regulators in California, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Vermont are allowing utilities to impose a surcharge on consumers who want to keep their conventional meters, and four other states are considering such fees, according to the Edison Electric Institute, an industry lobbying group. Utilities and regulators say the charges are needed to pay for dispatching workers to homes each month to record usage. “In an opt-out situation, you may be reading one meter and then the next one is five miles away,” says Helen Burt, chief customer officer of Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s biggest utility. “It’s much more costly.”