Are smart meters a dumb idea?

by Angela Chagnon

Two items on the Burlington ballot for Tuesday, Questions number 3 and 4, deal with bonds for the publicly-owned Burlington Electric Department (BED). Of concern is Question number 4, which asks voters to approve of a bond “up to $9.875 million”, of which “up to $7.2 million will be used as a match for the Smart Grid Investment Grant”, provided by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Information about the Smart Grid can be found on BED’s website HERE.

There’s just one tiny little problem. Burlington voters did not approve of the grant application that required matching funds of the taxpayers.

When confronted with this fact at a recent public meeting, BED General Manager Barbara Grimes said, “It will be problematic if the bond goes down because we have already committed to the Department of Energy and as part of this state-wide consortium that we are moving ahead with the work. And to meet the time frame, this all has to be done in three years. So I did not have the luxury of waiting until after this vote to start.”

Oh, I see. Grimes’ choice to go ahead with her grandiose plans and spend taxpayer money without their permission is now excused because her intentions were good. And it’s not at all disturbing that Grimes referred to waiting for taxpayer permission as a “luxury”.

Grimes furthermore stated, “We started last August trying to figure out what our system needed, getting vendors lined up, getting permission from the Dept. of Public Service and PSB [Public Service Board] and move forward. If it doesn’t move forward we will have the obligation, and at that point I would be looking at a rate increase at the Board of Public Service.”

So whether voters approve of it or not is really a moot question, because they’ll pay for it one way or another either through approving the bond or by having their rates hiked.

“Isn’t it true that if we don’t approve this, that then in effect we have LOST that magic grant as well,” asked a Burlington resident. “We would just have to pay that LATER, on top of it, too.”

“Yes,” Grimes agreed.

Grimes said that consumers would be able to track their energy usage online. She went on to say that customers would have to purchase an adapter to track their own usage in real time.

Since we are now stuck with the bill for these meters, let’s look into this a bit. Are the so-called “smart meters” a good investment? Central Maine Power began installing “smart meters” in November 2010. An article in the Sun Journal dated December 12, 2010 states, “Smart meters, bound for Lewiston-Auburn late next year, have issues that haven’t gotten much attention: Consumers will have to spend $100-plus to get a bead on their electricity usage in real time, one of its touted benefits.”

Okay…but will the meters save us money on energy costs?

Using the example of an air conditioner, Grimes said that ideally, with the new meters, customers will be able to lower their energy consumption by adjusting usage of the appliance during “peak energy”.

“Alternately, there will be new rates,” said Grimes. “The Department of Public Service has all of the utilities in the state of Vermont looking at rates. And you will pay according to use.”

“Smart meters” have been the subject of much controversy in San Francisco. The Utility Reform Network (TURN) reports that resident Mark Dieteman refuses to allow the meter to be installed on his home. The article reads:

“And why? “To me it’s unconstitutional, it’s an invasion of my privacy,” he said.

Because the new meters allow PG&E [utility company Pacific Gas & Electric] to remotely read a customer’s usage every hour. The company said in [the] future, that will allow homeowners to monitor and reduce their energy use. Dieteman also said, “It permits PG&E to actually come into your home at any time during the day and know what appliances you are using. This is corporate intrusion on your life.”

*Note: It’s important to click on the link and read the full story.

The article goes on to reveal that in the state’s rule book governing utilities, if a customer refuses to allow the installation of the new meter, the utility company is authorized to shut off a customer’s gas and electric service regardless of whether the customer’s bill is paid.

An article from November 2009 also talks about the problems plaguing California’s “smart meters”. Customers were allegedly being charged for energy usage that they were not using.

“In a growing controversy, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is now being accused of installing so-called “smart meters” that were smart for PG&E profits, but financially devastating for California consumers who face higher bills and growing questions about just how accurate those ‘smart meters’ really are.”

The many consumer complaints caused the California Public Utilities Commission to order an independent review of the program and accuracy of the meters.

It appears that the City of Burlington hasn’t learned from its mistakes with Burlington Telecom and the Moran Plant mess. If the taxpayers don’t wake up and realize what BED is trying to pull off in the name of good intentions, they may end up with yet another massive financial boondoggle.

3 thoughts on “Are smart meters a dumb idea?

  1. Anyone who wants to save money can do so now by turning off a few lights. You don’t need smart meters to do that, just reasonably smart people.
    I wouldn’t be bragging about the cost efficiency of Electric Companies in Vermont. We pay half as much here in Florida as we did in Vermont.
    That is do largely to the fact that FPL uses mainly nuclear. Good luck when VT Yankee shuts down and you have to buy even more expensive power.

  2. While I understand Ms. Chagnon’s concerns about the city’s financial mismanagement, don’t drag BED (nationally recognized both for excellent fiscal management and saving ratepayers money through saving energy) into this. The decision to join the state’s grant application was made after detailed financial analysis both as to affordability and efficacy. The city hires a general manager and appoints a commission to review decisions deliberately and publically. We are not Burlington Telecom.
    Smart meters will save energy and money and are the future of electrical delivery. Ms. Chagnon could have requested the reports that we review on television every month to see the granular analysis we did.
    Please support this upgrade to our system. The city’s economic development depends heavily on reliable and affordable rates. Think Dealer.Com and Lockheed. We want big employers and BED rates and reliability are a big part of those decisions in the board rooms of current and prospective employers.

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