Consumers Energy is preparing for a major upgrade of its electrical grid.
The Jackson-based utility will begin installing so-called “smart meters” this summer. Consumers said the new meters mean more control for customers, but as Mike Horace reports, some lawmakers worry that the new meters will actually do the opposite.
The days of a meter reader coming to your house to check your electricity usage will be coming to an end, at least, if Consumers Energy has its way.
The company wants to install new “smart meters” on every home in its coverage area. Roger Morgenstern is the Smart Grid communications coordinator for Consumers Energy…
“A smart meter is a two-way communicating device, that allows us to speak with our customers about their energy use in ways we’ve never been able to do. Customers will be able to understand their energy use in near real-time, so that they can log on to a secure website and understand more about how their energy use affects their energy bill.”
Morgenstern said the new meters are a huge improvement over the old, because they wirelessly transmit data about energy usage directly to the company.
The meters will also automatically alert Consumers to power outages and other disruptions…
“There will be no need to call Consumers Energy to let us know that you’re out of power. That allows Consumers Energy to know more quickly where an outage is, so that we can get crews dispatched there to get power turned back on more quickly.”
Smart meters are seen by electric utilities as a necessary step as they bring their electrical grids into the 21st century.
But some lawmakers are concerned that smart meters will actually end up taking control away from the customer…
“I think it should be optional, since we don’t have the option to buy electricity from anybody else.”
That’s republican State Representative Paul Opsommer. He’s concerned that the smart meters will be used to take away control from customers, and he cites what has happened in California as an example…
“The public service commission in California, where they’re installing Smart Meters, recently passed an administrative rule where the power company could regulate the amount of electricity you use, and the heat that your house was set at during the winter, or the air conditioning during the summer, remotely from, let’s say in this case, it would be if it was in Michigan, Consumers’ headquarters. Now they have since rescinded that administrative rule because of outcry from the public. But that kind of control, from outside of someone’s home, I think is simply wrong. Your home, Mike, my home, is my castle. That’s kind of a long-term American tradition, and that choice, I think, is also very important.”
Choice is important to Consumers Energy as well, said Roger Morgenstern. He said any programs controlling energy usage, like those in California, would be strictly voluntary…
“We are in the process of evaluating what types of customer programs we will be offering our customers, that are made available because of the intelligence in smart meters. Those programs have not been decided yet. But any of the programs that we do decide to offer our customers will be just that, they will be offerings to our customers. The customers will decide whether or not they want to participate.”
Such assurances have done little to alleviate Opsommer’s concerns. He’s introduced legislation requiring electric utilities to provide an “opt-out” option for anybody who wants it.
Morgenstern said that already exists.
“We are offering customers the opportunity, the choice, to opt out of the meter, if for some reason they feel they would not benefit. We feel customers will receive many benefits because of smart meters, but we also want to give our customers a choice.”
Another concern raised by smart meter opponents is the cost. Morgenstern said those concerns are overblown. He said customer costs will increase only if they opt-out of having a smart meter…
“We are still determining the cost for maintaining an opt-out program, because this will mean we will have to keep meters in stock and testing equipment in stock that we otherwise would not be doing. Those costs would have to be reviewed by the Public Service Commission, and the Michigan Public Service Commission is the one that will determine whether or not there will be a fee charged to customers who opt out of the program.”
Opsommer’s legislation, requiring opt-out options for smart meters, is pending before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Consumers Energy, meanwhile, will begin rolling out smart meters this August. The company will begin in west Michigan and gradually work their way north. Officials hope to complete the project by 2020.