Several utilities with opt-out provisions for smart metering have reported very low numbers of customers are seizing the opportunity, perhaps due to the added cost they bear. Meanwhile, state regulators continue to examine issues of cyber security and data privacy related to digital metering.
Preliminary numbers are in on the number of customers opting out of smart meters. They are few and getting fewer.
In a sample from a handful of utilities offered late last week in a Utility Telecom Council (UTC) webcast, "Smart Meter Opt-Out: The Policy and Impacts," the numbers appear quite modest and, in at least one case, are declining.
The UTC webcast featured regulators from Delaware, Michigan and Oregon and utility representatives from California, Maine and Maryland. I'll try to offer a few highlights here from a very thorough and informative discussion that lasted nearly two hours.
Delaware does not have an opt-out provision for those who object to smart meters, but the other states represented on the program do. All of them charge customers for opting out based on costs for manual meter reading and associated program costs. (In some cases, relay equipment must be added to a mesh network for meter data backhaul, where opt-outs create holes.)
The participating utilities on the UTC panel last week mostly agreed that they had attempted to provide expert literature reviews on meter-related health concerns and would continue to examine the data privacy issue. However, the thrust of opt-out programs appeared to be that such an option should be made available for no other reason than customer preference.
Back to those low opt-out numbers.
According to Lisa Gorsuch, a senior utility analyst in the electric and gas division at the Oregon Public Utility Commission, Portland General Electric has four opt-out customers. Avista Utilities has none.
Laney Brown, director of AMI programs for Central Maine Power, said that an initial opt-out rate of 1.4 percent among CMP's more than 600,000 customers has continued to decline.
Brown added that among CMP's lessons learned was that utilities going into an AMI deployment should devise an opt-out provision from the start and build it into the business plan and perform a risk assessment of towns and cities that might seek to opt-out en masse and reach out to them.
According to Cliff Gleicher, senior director for the SmartMeter program at Pacific Gas & Electric, 31,000 customers affecting about 51,000 meters have opted out in a service territory of 9.7 million. That's well under 1 percent, he pointed out. Still, an opt-out provision makes sense.
"The fairest playing field we can devise includes personal choice," Gleicher said.
The Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) staff issued a report available here that examined smart meter issues, according to Patrick Hudson, smart grid section manager in the Electric Reliability Division of the MPSC. The commission is satisfied that federal health and safety guidelines reflect that smart meters pose no verifiable health hazards, but it will take up the issues of cyber security and data privacy in future proceedings.
The low numbers of opt-out customers should drive industry discussion and I'll be curious as to what direction that discussion takes. The low numbers may reflect simple aversion to the increased cost of opting out, though advocates have suggested that increased understanding of smart meters' potential benefits is at work as well. And in California, efforts continue to pass opt-out costs along to fellow customers.
Does all this, shall we say, "vindicate" smart meters and advanced metering infrastructure?
I'd make the following observations. Utilities and regulators are wise to avoid wrestling with folks who pit the certainty of emotion against the uncertainties of science and, instead, focus on customer preference as the basis for opt-out. I'm also heartened that, at least for the utilities involved in or mentioned by regulators in the UTC webcast (PG&E, Central Maine Power, Portland General Electric, Avista Utilities), those who opt-out must pay the cost. Otherwise, you end up with subsidized anarchy.
A major remaining issue that concerns many utilities is whether entire towns or cities can opt out of smart metering and California is set to rule on that issue in January 2013. I don't know the technical details, but scattered individuals who opt out apparently don't threaten the system; thousands of customers clustered in one area might well present problems.
As to the vindication question, many in the power industry are talking about alternatives to the meter as the portal into the home. Smart meters may serve as end-of-line sensors and measure consumption for billing, but not extend utility visibility into the home. Rather, Internet-based means may supplant the meter as the means to communicate with the customer.
Another issue worth examining and maintaining vigilance on is the fact that very small numbers of people have created inordinate amounts of noise over a technology implementation accepted by the vast majority. It is difficult to discern the myriad motivations that must be at work in the anti-meter crowd, but a weakened American media has been drawn to the outlandish complaints as if they are equally valid as the science that thoroughly refutes their position. That dynamic remains a threat that the power industry still hasn't parried in any credible way.
Intelligent Utility Daily