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Thursday, March 24, 2011

2011-03-24 "PG&E's SmartMeter Plan: Opt Out, Pay a Premium; Customers who choose to turn off radio signals could pay as much as $270 up front plus $14 a month" by John Upton from "Bay Citizen" newswire
Pacific Gas and Electric Company plans to charge customers hundreds of dollars on top of their regular gas and electricity bills if they choose to switch off radio signals emitted by SmartMeters, which are being installed in businesses and homes throughout Northern California.
SmartMeters are being installed by PG&E as part of an industry-led effort to replace the nation's aging electrical infrastructure with digital equipment that can track and manage customers' energy consumption. Already, PG&E has replaced 7.7 million analog electricity and gas meters with the new devices.
Following years of public outcry about rollout of the meters, which some customers say have caused serious illnesses and incorrect energy consumption readings, the California Public Utilities Commission earlier this month ordered PG&E to allow customers to opt out of using the technology.
PG&E submitted a proposal to the CPUC Thursday that, instead of allowing customers to continue using analog meters, would see radio signals switched off from their SmartMeters. The SmartMeters would continue to monitor a customers' energy use, but they would not transmit the results to PG&E through radio signals. Instead, a PG&E official would visit the customers' home to manually read the meter for billing purposes.
Customers who select the “radio-off” option would pay a $135 up-front fee followed by a $20 monthly charge, or a $270 up-front fee followed by a $14 monthly charge, PG&E proposed. Low-income customers would pay 20 percent less.
Instead of the fixed monthly fee, customers could choose to pay a monthly rate that varies with the amount of gas and electricity that they use. That option could be less expensive for customers who use little electricity or gas.
PG&E justified the seemingly high rates by saying that its anticipated costs in deploying the “radio-off” option for an expected 146,000 opt-out customers would exceed $80 million over two years.
"We wanted to make sure that those who elected that option would bear the costs associated with that option, as opposed to the rest of our customers," PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said.
The opt-out program costs will include expenses associated with turning customers’ SmartMeter radios off; switching radios back on if customers change their mind or new tenants move into the premises; modifying PG&E’s existing SmartMeter-related information technology programs and radio networks; and communicating with customers about alternatives to the opt-out option, PG&E told the CPUC in the proposal.
Consumer advocates, meanwhile, characterized the rates as just another cash grab by a malevolent corporate monopoly.
“I’m definitely going to ask for the data to support their forecasts for how much it’s going to cost to do all this stuff,” said Marcel Hawiger, energy attorney for The Utility Reform Network, a consumer watchdog.
Hawiger said that PG&E should give its customers the option of reading their own meters instead of paying PG&E a monthly fee. Some customers with dogs and fences already read their own meters, he said, suggesting that program be expanded.
Public hearings will be held in the coming months to discuss the proposal, and a CPUC ruling on PG&E's proposed opt-out pricing system is expected by mid-September.

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