LANSING, Mich. -- State representative Gary Glenn from Midland is proposing legislation to let people opt out of the smart meter installation with no extra costs. The question now is how will it affect Consumers Energy’s plan moving forward.
For nearly two years, FOX 17 has been investigating estimated meter reads had employed by Consumers Energy bills skyrocket to thousands of dollars for some customers. The issue then: some meters weren't able to be checked as frequently as needed, so bill estimates were used until they could check them out.
Consumers Energy’s main solution was to install smart meters to record energy usage automatically, a technology that doesn't require people to manually read the meters.
But now, the proposed legislation could put a wrench in the company's plans.
Some people have a variety of concerns over the smart meters: health related, privacy issues, the potential to double the size of bills, or having a say in what gets installed on their property.
Glenn, a Republican, said no matter what the complaint, it doesn’t matter: homeowners should be able to choose what they want installed and with no penalty cost from their decision.
Estimated meter reads can happen for several reasons: it could be because the meter isn't accessible, or because there's a barking dog, or because of dangerous conditions. In some cases, customers might not an in-person reading for years, then suddenly get hit with a large bill they couldn’t pay.
The state launched an investigation into Consumers Energy’s billing practices, resulting in Consumers being fined half a million dollars and forced to come up with a plan to stop the estimated billing. Consumers' main solution was to put in smart meters to replace the analog ones. So far, they’ve installed 1.4 million out of 1.8 million in the state.
“The benefits of the meters is that they send us one text message each night letting us know how much electricity each customer has used. That means we don’t have to send people in vehicles to address and to walk in yards,” said Consumers Energy spokesperson Dennis McKee.
A handful of people have complained to FOX 17 that their energy bill has doubled since smart meters were installed. The owner of a power washing company with a smart meter in Grandville contacted us a year ago and said he received a bill for nearly $14,000 for a 29-day billing cycle. Consumers Energy told us their system controls failed them and inaccurately calculated the bill.
Rep. Glenn said it’s stories like this that should give customers a choice. “They shouldn’t be forced by a monopoly against whom the homeowner can’t protect themselves by shopping around for an alternative provider for electricity," he said.
Another part of Glenn’s bill is that the homeowner shouldn’t be charged if they opt out of the smart meter. Right now, those who don’t want a smart meter and don’t appropriately notify Consumers are charged an initial fee of about $120. If Consumers is appropriately notified, the fee is about $64. After that, the homeowner has to pay a monthly charge of $9.72.
Consumers Energy argues that the fees are necessary because they are not going to put the burden of those costs on the majority of customers who are opting to use the new technology.
“99.5% of our customers utilize the new technology,” said McKee. "The customers who don’t use the new technology, well, that means they have to continue supporting the people, the products, the fuel that gets our workers across town, and into yards to look at meters."
Glenn’s bill grows out of a brief filed by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette a few years back before the Michigan Public Service Commission. The brief argued that there is no constitutional authority for Consumers to charge any kind of fees for residents who opt out of smart meters. While the MPSC ruled against that brief, Glenn is hoping to recharge that effort once again.
There is another hearing about this bill on March 7 at the House office. Glenn encourages anyone with opinions on this to attend. Meanwhile, Consumers Energy stands by the fact that this is simply a new technology to give their customers an updated and better service.
“Will [smart meters] cause our rates to go down? Not necessarily because there are so many elements to us providing energy to our customers,” said McKee.
Schuette said there was no benefit to the homeowner, only to the utility.