Dallas Morning News
The Public Utility Commission on Thursday instructed Oncor to offer each customer a free smart meter test, rather than charging the usual $25 fee to send a worker to test the accuracy of an installed meter.
Regulations already allow each customer to get one free meter test every four years. Commissioner Ken Anderson suggested that the clock reset when a customer gets a new digital meter, even if the customer has already had his old meter tested in the past few years. The other two commissioners agreed.
If someone has already been billed $25 for a smart meter test, "there needs to be a refund of that or a credit back," Anderson told executives with Oncor and its Houston counterpart, Centerpoint, during a PUC meeting.
The concession comes as thousands of North Texans have requested meter tests after utility bills spiked during the winter. Some customers worry that the new meters cause higher bills, but Oncor says most of the large bills went to people who used electricity to heat their homes during the record cold.
Jim Greer, head of Oncor's smart meter program, said the Dallas power line operator has conducted about 2,300 smart meter tests so far this year at customers' request. Oncor has billed about half of those customers. He agreed to the refund.
Normally, Oncor only gets about 400 requests each month for meter tests. But in January and February, the number spiked to 4,000 a month, including people who still have the old mechanical meters.
The digital meters are designed to communicate with Oncor, showing customer electricity usage throughout the day and alert the company to outages. This will help Oncor to restore power more quickly, and allow consumers to understand their own usage and, in turn, cut back.
Oncor, which is 80 percent owned by Energy Future Holdings, has installed more than 760,000 smart meters, on its way to 3.4 million by the end of 2012. The PUC allows Oncor to charge customers $2.19 a month for 11 years to pay for the meters.
Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said in a prepared statement that waiving the testing fee is the right thing to do.
"Although these new meters represent the wave of the future, there are still kinks to be worked out before customers can feel comfortable with the new technology," West said.
Of course, the free meter tests aren't actually free. The cost for the once-every-four-years test is part of the rate every customer pays.
PUC spokesman Terry Hadley said the rate has already been set. So if Oncor ends up doing more free meter tests than expected, the company would have to ask the PUC to recoup those costs by hiking the rate later.
Commissioner Anderson also asked the utility executives how they are sorting out complaints that the old meters were misread during the meter switch.
For about 0.86 percent of customers who have new meters, the worker who changed the meter read the old meter incorrectly, Oncor's Greer said. An incorrect reading results in an incorrect bill.
Greer said each meter is read at the home and again at Oncor's central service location. Now, Oncor is comparing those readings to find any errors.
He said the company has also begun photographing the old meter for a record of the final tally.
"As a percentage of the total deployment, it's not a huge percentage, the problem is, in raw numbers, it does sound like a big problem," Anderson said. Oncor has found about 7,000 customers whose old meters were misread.
"It only matters if you're the one that gets the misread," said commissioner Donna Nelson.
The free smart meter tests are separate from the three dozen side-by-side meter tests Oncor is performing throughout North and Central Texas. In those cases, Oncor will install both a digital meter and a mechanical meter on a house to see if they both read electricity usage at about the same rate. Oncor will report weekly results of the test for about a month.
The PUC also said Thursday it has hired Navigant Consulting to independently test smart meters.