Some shocked by high electric bills blame Oncor's 'smart meters'

Oncor Electric Delivery recently installed a new “smart meter” at Tricia Lambert’s son’s home. His electric bill went down.

Oncor installer Jeremy Bastible puts a ‘smart meter’ in place on a West Arlington home. The company has installed more than 760,000 meters in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, part of its efforts to replace 3.4 million by the end of 2012.

Same thing happened with a couple of her neighbors in Kessler Park.

Lambert only wishes that were true for her.

Though Oncor assures her that her smart meter is working perfectly, her first bills using the new meter vastly exceeded any bill she received in the last three years.

“My bills average between 1,500 and 2,000 kilowatt-hours, and it goes up a little more in the summer,” she said. “That’s pretty much where I stayed. The first month with the smart meter was 4,383 kilowatt-hours.”

So she called Oncor to complain, one of hundreds of Texans in the company’s service area to question the accuracy of the new smart meters.The devices carry data wirelessly to Oncor, instantly inform the utility of outages and allow homeowners to monitor usage on their home computers.

And hundreds of complaints is a modest amount, considering that Oncor has installed more than 760,000 smart meters, on its way to 3.4 million by the end of 2012. But it was enough to get the attention of state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay and chairman of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee.

Checking the meters

This week, Fraser asked the Public Utility Commission of Texas to halt the installation of smart meters, suspend the $2.19 monthly fee Oncor charges all its customers for the new meters and hire an independent third party to study their accuracy.

He got one out of three. The PUC said it hopes to hire a company within two weeks to make sure the meters are functioning properly.

That’s fine with Oncor, which also will begin doing side-by-side comparisons of old and new meters in the Temple-Killeen area, the source of many of the complaints, and installing free in-home monitors for 100 customers so they can keep an eye on their electric consumption.

As for the high bills that triggered customer complaints, Oncor blames those on December’s frigid temperatures, the second-coldest in 20 years. That was compounded by monthly billing cycles extended to as long as 35 days because of the holidays.

“The December bills were no doubt larger than the October or November bill,” said Oncor spokeswoman Catherine Cuellar. “But when you look at more historic bills, the increase in usage is consistent with the change in temperature.”

Sometimes, though, the weather had nothing to do with it.

John Colbert moved out of his Oak Cliff condominium in the beginning of November, and the first bill after he left was around $90, for 600 kwh. In December, when the heat was left off until Christmas Eve and set at 60 for the last few days of the month, power usage jumped to 2,400 kwh, quadrupling in a cold and empty apartment.

The only difference aside from the outside temperature was the smart meter that had been installed.

“Oncor did an audit and checked the old meter, and they found that when they pulled it out, they had misread it by something like 2,000 kilowatt-hours” – roughly $200, said Colbert’s daughter, Michele.

And Colbert’s case isn’t an isolated one.

Keeping warm

Oncor has removed about 760,000 of the old electro-mechanical meters, taking final readings before installing the smart meters. But about 1 percent of the final readings are wrong.

“Any time you’ve got humans involved in the process, there’s always an opportunity for errors to take place,” said Oncor spokesman Chris Schein. “The old meters have six numbers – let’s say 1-2-3-4-5-6. If the meter reader accidentally types in 1-3-3-4-5-6, your bill has just shot up from that simple typo.”

For most customers with high bills, though, Oncor says the weather is the most likely suspect.

Customers with certain kinds of electric heat could spend $25 a day just to stay warm in very cold weather – like the 10-day stretch in mid-February when the temperature reached freezing or below. And December and even moreso February were exceptionally cold, 5 and almost 8 degrees below normal.

“Even if you haven’t touched your thermostat,” Cuellar said, “if the temperature is 10 degrees colder, that can mean a 50 percent increase in usage.”

Schein said a lot of those complaining about high bills say they use “energy-efficient space heaters” to warm their homes.

“But that’s kind of like saying you drive a fuel-efficient SUV,” he said. “They just don’t exist.”

Schein said the vast majority of complaints to Oncor have come from customers with electric strip heating, electric space heaters or high electricity rates.

“I talked with one woman and said, ‘Ma’am, you’re paying 15 cents per kilowatt-hour.’ She said, ‘That won’t make a difference,’ ” Schein said. “But she could easily find a rate at 10 cents. Her bill was $300. A lower rate would have meant a hundred bucks in her pocket.”

Raising awareness

Lambert doesn’t deny that December was cold. But January was about average, yet her smart meter said she used 3,314 kwh of energy, still far above her typical usage.

“Oncor keeps telling us they’ve checked the meters,” Lambert said. “They’ve checked 1,100 of them in Dallas and there’s nothing wrong with them.”

Oncor will host 100 open houses this year to explain how the new meters work, help customers understand their bills and teach them to find lower electric rates.

“It’s all about helping to educate consumers so they can make smarter energy choices,” Oncor spokeswoman Cuellar said.

“For most people, their electric consumption comes as a surprise. You don’t know what your bill will be until it’s too late to make a change,” she said. “The biggest advantage, as far as consumers are concerned, is the smart meters will let you know in real time what you’re using and what your bill is at that moment.”

Customers can walk out to their meters and watch the numbers tick off. But some, such as Leigh Butler of Irving, can’t believe what they see.

Her highest electric bill in the last two years came in July 2008, when she and her five kids – four of them teenagers – lived in a 2,800-square-foot, two-story home. The bill said they used 3,511 kwh of electricity, Butler said, and she doesn’t doubt it.

Weather or not?

A year later, with two of the kids off on their own, Butler and her three other children downsized to a single-story, 1,500-square-foot home. After an air conditioning repair last summer, her bills settled in around 2,000 kwh.

Then came her bill for late November and December: 4,035 kwh.

“I expect the bills to go up when it’s cold,” Butler said, “but the weather doesn’t justify that usage.”

Her January bill convinced her that something was wrong with the smart meter, which Oncor installed Dec. 9.

“We went on a cruise for 15 days in January,” Butler said. “We turned the heat off when we left. We turned the hot water heater to its lowest setting.”

But the smart meter measured their usage as 3,529 kwh, she said, even though the family was only home for 16 days.

“I’m a single mom, and I’m on a budget. I shopped around for electricity, and I got a great rate,” she said. “I can afford $200 a month. But I can’t afford $400.

“So I keep the thermostat at 68, and 65 at night. We have electric blankets, but my kids are always cold. I tell them I just can’t afford to keep the house warm.”

Butler asked Oncor to check her smart meter, and the customer service representative said the company would try to have someone come by within 30 to 45 days, she said.
She’s still waiting.

Posted by gbob | 2 weeks ago

I know people where the average reported bill went from about $200 per month to $500 month after the “smart” meter was installed. They are on a fixed income and this increase is causing a lot of stress on the family situation. I suggested they try to get by with less. Walk around the house and unplug everything electric they aren’t using and maybe start burning candles for lights when possible. Our great grandparents got along just fine without expensive electric bills and we can too. $500 for a small house for a monthly electric bill is just crazy, especially when living on a $900 month disability check. To add insult to injury, electric companies are currently paying very low rates for natural gas which is used for generating the electricty which is being sold at prices that are seemingly beyond gouging.

The good news though, is the high prices will get more people to look at possibly installing photovoltaic panels and generate electricity themselves.

By MICHAEL E. YOUNG / The Dallas Morning News
myoung@dallasnews.com

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