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Utilities board rules against smart meter opt-out charge

An analog electric meter is seen at the home of Wendy Hartman in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. Hartman opted out of having a “smart meter” installed by Alliant Energy at her home, a move which as of today will not be penalized by the energy company. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
An analog electric meter is seen at the home of Wendy Hartman in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. Hartman opted out of having a “smart meter” installed by Alliant Energy at her home, a move which as of today will not be penalized by the energy company. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

The Iowa Utilities Board has ruled against Alliant Energy’s proposal to charge customers for opting out of smart meters.

The decision came Wednesday after a few months of deliberating over testimony the board heard in November and December. Alliant Energy had asked the board permission to charge a monthly fee of $15 to customers who opted out of smart meters, which transmit usage data through radio frequency. Alliant Energy had maintained that customers would not be able to retain their analog meters at all, and instead would have to use a non-transmitting digital meter if they did not want the smart meter.

The board ruled that not only must Alliant refrain from charging customers for opting out, it must allow them to keep their analog meters until they fail or need to be replaced.

The board has ordered Alliant to make the following changes to its proposal:

• Allow all residential customers to opt out of smart meters. However, the board is not requiring Alliant to provide an opt-out to non-residential customers or those taking the service under an optional, non-standard rate.

• Customers must be allowed to opt out on a permanent basis.

• Allow the opt-out without any fee to the customer. The board found that meter-reading costs were already included in customers’ base rates.

• Provide the choice of a non-transmitting digital meter or a smart meter set to pulse only once per month to customers who wish to opt out of Alliant’s standard smart meters.

• Use actual meter reads twice per year with estimated bills for the remaining months for customers who elect the opt-out option with an analog or non-transmitting digital meter.

The board also required Alliant to:

• Allow for an area-wide opt-out.

• Revise the privacy policy to limit the selling of customer identifiable information without customer consent within 30 days of the order.

• File a customer notice that describes the options and processes to opt-out for IUB review once the company has revised its proposed tariffs.

Reaction

Emily Kelly, a member of Fairfield Smart Meters, which opposes the roll-out of smart meters and has asked the board to let residents keep analog meters, said she was very pleased with the ruling. There are a few things the ruling leaves unclear that she wants further information on.

For instance, the ruling states that Alliant does not need to allow an opt-out for those customers on a non-standard rate. Does that refer to customers who offset their bill with solar power, as Kelly does? She thinks so, but is not sure. Kelly said one reason she became involved in the issue was because she learned months ago from Alliant that solar customers would not be able to opt out of smart meters.

Kelly attended the three days of hearings the board held on this matter, two days in early November and then a third in early December. The hearings consisted of testimony from witnesses called by Alliant Energy on one hand and critics of smart meters on the other. Kelly was one of several Fairfield residents to testify at the hearing.

One of the rules the smart meter opponents wanted to revise was about whether a house that opts out of smart meters can remain opted out after it’s sold. Alliant Energy stated that it could not, that once the name on the residence changes, the new occupant would have to receive a smart meter. However, the ruling appears to suggest that properties that opted out will now be allowed to remain that way even if they pass to a new owner.

Kelly said that was a critical rule to change, because she said it would adversely affect Fairfield’s housing market.

Analogs

The ruling does not state that customers who retain their analog meters will be allowed to replace them with an analog. In fact, Alliant Energy spokesman Justin Foss said such a thing would not be possible since Alliant does not use refurbished meters, and because its supplier of meters no longer manufactures analog.

Foss said Wednesday’s ruling will not change the utility’s plan to continue to roll out smart meters in 2019 as it has already finished in Wisconsin and already been doing in Iowa. He said 99.7 percent of Alliant’s Iowa customers have been accepting of smart meters.

Foss added that the ruling does not prohibit the utility from charging for opt-outs under a revised proposal.

“Historically, regulated utilities are required to charge the customers for the costs that they cause,” Foss said. “This order does not say we cannot charge, but it must go through the rate case process. There could be a charge in the future.”

Legislature

Meanwhile in the Iowa Legislature, Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Fairfield, has pushed a bill that would provide statewide protections for area residents opposed to smart meters.

Shipley said he was happy to see Wednesday’s ruling, noting that he is not anti-utility but instead wants to see an atmosphere that is fair for both the utilities and the customers.

“I was very impressed with the Iowa Utilities Board, and to me this proves, in a sense, that the system works,” he said. “Concerned citizens can stand toe to toe with billion-dollar corporations and win. They can have their voices heard.”

Shipley said the ruling might force a few minor updates to his bill, but he still plans to push for statewide rules on smart meters.

The bill would prevent a utility company from charging customers extra fees for opting out of smart meters or providing discounts to customers who choose smart meters.