If you want your smart electric meter a little less smart, the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada appears to be OK with that.
The commission released a draft order Thursday to let ratepayers opt out of NV Energy's NV Energize smart-meter program.
Through NV Energize, the utility had sought to replace its 1.45 million analog meters with smart meters that allow remote reading and save the company $36 million in annual operating costs. The meters, which transmit use data every 15 minutes, would also let NV Energy offer voluntary peak-pricing programs for customers who could save money by using less power on hot days.
Some consumers protested the plan, citing concerns that smart meters, which emit electromagnetic waves, could harm their health. They also worry about meter accuracy, and said they didn't want the power company collecting and storing details about their daily power use. In consumer sessions and workshops in late 2011 and in January, many asked to keep their existing analog meters.
But the commission's draft order offers a compromise. It recommends a digital meter. A meter reader could drive by and read the digital device remotely from a vehicle, saving time on manual reads that require a physical meter check.
Addressing concerns about smart-meter electromagnetic radiation are "beyond the regulatory authority of this commission," and are instead the responsibility of the Federal Communications Commission, the order states. Radio-frequency emissions from smart meters are "far lower" than the FCC's guidelines, the order adds.
The order also dismisses concerns about smart-meter accuracy. It notes that there had been 60 high-bill complaints for nearly 600,000 smart meters installed through November. That's low, considering that any new device will have hiccups due to manufacturer defects or component failures. Smart meters are as reliable as analog meters, the order concludes. Plus, NV Energy will pay for the first shop test on the meter of any ratepayer with concerns about accuracy.
The order emphasizes that peak-pricing programs would be "completely voluntary." It also states that the commission has strengthened its Consumer Bill of Rights to protect "vulnerable populations" from remote service shut-off. And it rejects claims that smart meters pose fire risks because they're not approved by Underwriters Laboratories, a company that verifies the safety of electronic devices.
On security, the order states that NV Energy "has taken all reasonable measures to ensure customer privacy and security, but no system is totally safe." It says system software would need continual upgrading to prevent hacking, and the commission would continually monitor the utility's privacy practices and advise new regulations as necessary.
The order calls for NV Energy, which has almost completed NV Energize in Southern Nevada, to file suggestions for opt-out rates in the next two months.
The utility suggested in January a one-time opt-out fee of $110 in Southern Nevada, plus a monthly fee of about $15, to install a nontransmitting digital meter for an estimated 4,500 residential users in Southern Nevada who wouldn't want communicating meters.
NV Energy doesn't comment on draft orders because they're not final.
Eric Witkoski, the state consumer advocate charged with protecting ratepayers' interests, said it is good news that the commission would allow people to opt out. But he said he was troubled that consumers would be charged to do so. Smart meters will save the company $12 million to $13 million in 2012 and $25 million in 2013, and the company could cover the cost of opt-outs and still have "extraordinary savings," he said. Any costs could be addressed in the company's next rate case, in 2014. The company typically bears expenses it incurs between rate cases, he said.
The commission will discuss whether to approve the order in a meeting at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in Carson City. The commission will simulcast the session in its Las Vegas office at 9075 W. Diablo Drive.
Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at email@example.com or 702-380-4512.