I recently had the opportunity to interview the Chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, Robert F. Powelson, regarding his views on smart meter opt-outs and other issues affecting Pennsylvania’s energy future. Because I live and practice in Pennsylvania, I may be biased but I think Smart Grid Legal News readers will agree it is refreshing and rare to hear regulators like Chairman Powelson promote smart meters, energy efficiency and other practices that advance our energy future.

Evers: Chairman Powelson, thank you for taking the time to discuss smart meters with me. Why is it important for customers to have smart meters?

Powelson: Act 129 of 2008 has really paved the way for the rollout of smart meters, also referred to as Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), and the implementation of Act 129 continues to benefit Pennsylvania customers. As I see it, smart meter technology is a “win-win” situation for the Commonwealth – both electricity customers and electricity providers alike reap the benefits of advanced meters. 

Smart meters give customers greater control over their energy consumption by allowing them to measure their energy usage, monitor real-time electricity prices, and adjust their consumption and behavior in order to realize significant savings on monthly bills. Customers can even shut down appliances during peak periods or pre-program appliances and devices to operate only at predetermined (and lower cost) timeframes if they so choose.

Similarly, electricity providers also benefit from increased smart meter deployment. The two key concepts here are efficiency and reliability. AMI makes meter reading quicker and more efficient by eliminating the current practice of estimated meter readings. Additionally, with smart meters, utilities have the ability to monitor distribution networks to allow for the immediate detection of irregularities, which leads to drastically reduced response time in addressing outages. 

Finally, smart meters can help reduce both overall electricity use and peak demand use, leading to lower emissions from fossil power plants that will not have to generate as much power – a direct environmental benefit.

Evers: Chairman, across the country several states have implemented an opt-out process due to customers concerns about health and privacy. I am concerned about the impact of an opt-out process as people relocate in and out of homes with smart meters. I call it a smart meter mosaic. I joke that real estate disclosure forms will soon have to start indicating the home’s level of smartness. Seriously, I think the implementation and long-term management of such a process could eventually put upward pressure on rates for everyone. What are your views regarding a smart meter opt-out process?

Powelson: In May, I testified before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Consumer Affairs Committee on a proposal to partially repeal Act 129 and permit smart meter “opt-out” programs in the Commonwealth. My testimony addressed two pieces of legislation – House Bill 2186, which would allow consumers to opt out of having smart meters installed at their premises, and House Bill 2188, which would require consumer consent in order to share information from electric meters with government agencies. These bills represent a significant step backward in policy, with the potential to negate all of the reductions already achieved under Act 129.

The proliferation of opt-out requirements for AMI deployment has the potential to cripple efforts to modernize grid technology. Maine has received a lot of attention regarding its AMI opt-out, and Central Maine Power (CMP) has considered, analyzed and provided substantial cost information relating to a variety of potential solutions or mitigation measures for customers seeking to opt out of CMP’s Smart Meter Program. CMP estimates these incremental infrastructure and support costs to be as high as $70 million over the life of the AMI project – and that is assuming only 1 to 2 percent of CMP customers opt out. At an opt-out level of 10 percent, these incremental costs grow to hundreds of millions of dollars – exceeding the costs of CMP’s advanced meter project.

While I appreciate that there are consumers who have security and privacy concerns with respect to AMI, the PUC, legislature, and Electric Distribution Companies (EDCs) may be able to help alleviate these concerns through increased education and outreach. It is worth noting that many EDCs and their customers have had AMI in place for years, namely PPL and PECO. Additionally, we are already facilitating the continued implementation of smart grid technology by establishing rules that more precisely address conduct in the areas of reliability, privacy and security. California and Ontario have undertaken similar efforts through a “Privacy by Design” rulebook, which was integral to customer support for advanced meter roll out.

In sum, opt-outs cause operational gaps that will lead to additional costs for companies and their customers, defeating the stated purposes of Act 129. Such a system reduces reliability for all customers, as well as the benefits of a completely modernized electric grid. Simply put, there is no compelling reason for an “opt-out” program.

Evers: Smart meters have received a lot of attention but there is so much more to the concept of smart grid. Beyond smart meters, what do you see as other benefits as utilities upgrade their systems?

Powelson: Nationally, billions of dollars are being invested in smart grid technology because of the many benefits to consumers and utilities, as well as the positive impact on the environment through increased energy efficiency. (By way of background, federal support for the development of smart meter systems began with the Energy Policy Act of 2005, was supplemented with passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, and funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – which set aside $11 billion for the creation of a smart grid.)

For me it is not just about the technology. The most important objective is to better serve the needs of consumers and build stronger, more vibrant communities in which to live, work, and play. Smart meter and smart grid programs will be much more efficient in delivering electricity to homes and businesses; responding to outages and other emergencies; monitoring and seeking to curtail usage, especially during peak periods; preventing theft and fraud; and helping electric customers save dollars on their monthly bill. In short, the benefits to Pennsylvanians will continue to grow.

Evers: Recently many utilities have partnered with Opower and Facebook to allow customers to form teams for energy saving contests and compare energy usage with friends, hopefully creating positive peer pressure. Why are innovations like this important to our energy future?

Powelson: Any method of educating consumers and raising consumer awareness is vital. The real benefits will come when people start to realize that we are all in this together, and everyone contributing a little adds up to significant decreases in demand, which then puts a downward pressure on prices.

I particularly like this idea of comparing energy usage with neighbors and friends, as it dovetails nicely with the idea of “competition” in Pennsylvania’s electricity market. The more customers learn about competitive electricity providers, and the benefits and potential price savings available in the marketplace, the better. Increased dialogue that leads to decreased energy usage is exactly what we are looking for under Act 129.

Evers: Are there any other thoughts regarding Pennsylvania’s energy future you would like to share?

Powelson: Pennsylvania has really embraced a two-pronged approach in considering its energy future. On one hand, we are doing all that we can as regulators, providers, and consumers to comply with Act 129 and become more energy efficient. On the other hand, we are strengthening Pennsylvania’s competitive marketplace to increase competition among electric generation suppliers and produce better pricing and greater savings for the Commonwealth’s 5.6 million electric customers.

In addition to fulfilling its regulatory and oversight responsibilities, the Pennsylvania PUC will continue to educate consumers on the benefits of both energy efficiency and conservation, including smart meter technology, as well the advantages of shopping with competitive suppliers for their electric generation.

Rather than let the experts at the Georgia Public Service Commission address the issue, lawmakers in Georgia have decided to address consumer smart meter concerns with the passage of Senate Bill 459. What is most concerning about the bill is that it fails to acknowledge the financial implication of smart meter opt-outs. Well, that is not completely true. This bill goes where no state has gone before in that it recognizes there could be fiscal issues related to opting out of smart meters; it simply refuses to apportion any responsibility on those making the opt-out decision. Below is key language from the bill:

(i) Notwithstanding any other provision of this title, the commission is authorized to provide that consumers may elect not to use smart meters of any investor owned electric light and power company subject to regulation by the commission; provided, however, that the commission shall not create and regulate a surcharge for consumers who make such an election.

Based on its Energy Overview, Michigan’s total energy consumption is relatively high, due in part to the State’s large population (8th in the nation), northern climate and industrial sector.  Activities such as durable goods manufacturing by the automotive, glass, metal castings and chemical industries, as well as mining, pulp and paper manufacturing/production promotes robust energy usage. With an understanding of how energy affects the Michigan economy, the Michigan Public Service Commission began smart grid activities as early as 2007 (Case No. U-15278) before the phrase smart grid became en vogue. In fact, the forward-thinking Commission has a section on its website dedicated to providing smart grid information. It includes a helpful FAQ for customers that addresses such things as the safety of smart meters:

“Are the radio frequency (RF) communications used by the smart meters safe?
The scientific and medical evidence to date suggests that exposure to RF fields does not cause adverse health effects, provided that exposure is within the safety guidelines. The Unites States federal government and the international health community, including the World Health Organization, plus numerous independent studies have deemed low-level radio frequency to be completely safe. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted Maximum Permissible Exposure (MPE) limits for radio transmitters of all types, including smart meters. These limits also include a prudent margin of safety. Even so, smart meters operate far below the limit.
The following reports provide additional information on radio frequency:
Radio-Frequency Exposure Levels from Smart Meters   
No Health Threat from Smart Meters    
Electromagnetic Fields and Public Health   
Health Impacts of Radio Frequency from Smart Meters   
Radio Frequency Safety

Despite these efforts, the opposition to smart meters has spread from Marin County, CA to Michigan. On January 12, 2012 the MPSC issued an Order opening a docket in “hopes of increasing the Commission’s and public’s understanding of smart meters.” Given the importance of smart meters to energy efficiency, I am hoping this massive education effort does not conclude with opt-outs. A hybrid approach makes the deployment more expensive and could eventually be a bear to manage. Think five years from now when the opt-outs relocate. Eventually there could be meter changes as frequently as move-in/move-outs…and that would not be so smart.