All they wanted was a choice.
Smart-meter opponents got that choice Wednesday, but it wasn't the option many of them preferred.
The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada approved an opt-out program for ratepayers opposed to NV Energy's NV Energize smart-meter initiative. Consumers will be able to swap out communicating smart meters with digital devices that would not store or transmit daily or hourly power-use details directly to NV Energy, but that would be read remotely once a month by drive-by meter-readers.
Consumers can't opt out just yet: Commissioners gave NV Energy 60 days to file fees for consumers who leave NV Energize. Once the commission puts charges in place, opt-outs can proceed.
The agency's decision followed more than four hours of testimony from about 45 consumers statewide, many of whom said they wanted to skip digital devices and keep their analog meters for health, privacy and security reasons.
NV Energy responded that analog meters weren't a practical alternative because they are becoming obsolete and thus costlier to repair and maintain over the long haul. And one reason to replace the utility's 1.45 million analog meters was to save millions on manual meter-reading costs.
So the commission found what it thought was a compromise: Drive-by digital meters that don't allow NV Energy to track ratepayers' daily power use, but would curb the utility's operating costs because fewer meter readers would be needed.
But one consumer at Wednesday's meeting hollered that opponents would "go to the Supreme Court" to avoid digital meters altogether.
Gary Smith, NV Energy's director of customer energy solutions, said the commission's decision will not affect NV Energize.
"We're still going forth with smart-meter deployment. It's a big part of modernizing the electric grid," Smith said. "We really don't feel this has an impact on that. Our overall goal is safe, reliable service at reasonable costs."
Smith noted that the commission found that smart meters are safe, reliable and accurate, and NV Energy has taken appropriate measures to protect ratepayer privacy. But the agency wanted to accommodate concerned ratepayers.
NV Energy officials say they expect about 7,500 ratepayers statewide to opt out of the program. That small share is based on figures from other jurisdictions: Portland General Electric in Oregon had two opt-outs from 800,000 ratepayers, while Pacific Gas & Electric in Northern California has had 4,400 opt-outs among more than 6 million customers.
Based on 7,500 opt-outs, NV Energy said in an earlier filing that it might seek a one-time opt-out fee of $110, and a monthly charge of $15.
But Nevada ratepayers who want to leave NV Energize said Wednesday that they shouldn't have to pay, because NV Energy could cover opt-out expenses with the $36 million a year smart meters will save on operating costs.
That echoes feedback from the state official charged with protecting ratepayers.
State consumer advocate Eric Witkoski said after the hearing that he was pleased consumers could opt out, but he said he didn't like the idea of charging ratepayers to leave NV Energize.
"We'll see what the cost structure is and go from there," Witkoski said.
Smith said NV Energy needs savings from NV Energize to cover the $163 million it's spending to convert to smart meters. A federal stimulus grant is covering an additional $138 million.
"We think they (ratepayers) have a flawed expectation there," Smith said. "We will be accumulating the benefits over time, but we're also accumulating the costs of the program, and the costs right now exceed the benefits."
Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4512.