High-tech electric meters are called smart by utilities, consumers call them anything but smart

CLEVELAND - We have a new consumer alert about your electric meter. Utilities are installing new high-tech products across the country including Ohio. In some cases, consumers said their bills doubled. In Florida, homes caught fire.

Rotating electric meters are on their way out as electricity finally joins the digital age.

"They really tried to expound the virtues of this being great for the consumer, and I don't see any virtues for the consumer whatsoever," Lori Lapierre said.

Lapierre is one of almost a million Ohio homeowners with a smart meter. Utility companies hope the meters will help you track your power usage online, and help you save money if you conserve energy during peak times. Some consumers call the meters anything but smart.

"We had never seen a $200 bill and that was when we started to feel there was something wrong with the meter," Lapierre explained.

Lapierre said her electric bill doubled after her Columbus utility installed a smart meter. It's a complaint heard across the country, and the results are typically the same.

In California, an independent company reviewed 600 billing complaints and found the meters were working properly.

Utilities said bills are increasing because of extreme weather, rate increases and old meters that billed incorrectly for years.

Lapierre doesn't buy it. She lives in a newer home and doubts her old meter was the problem.

"If you have that many consumer complaints something has to be going on that many people can't be wrong," Lapierre said.

"It's some consumer pushback and it's not from experience so much as it is from uncertainty," Snitchler said.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohi o or PUCO said it takes a long time to change consumer behavior. For that reason, the state is closely watching pilot programs from AEP, Duke, and FirstEnergy. In Southern Ohio, the programs have been under way for years, and don't give consumers any choice.

"How much does it bother you that you can't opt out of this?" we asked Lapierre.

"A lot especially if our bill is going to be this high," Lapierre said.

The tests are just starting in northeast Ohio, and FirstEnergy is running them differently.

"That's a lot of people that could potentially be upset with us if they didn't like this new technology," said Mark Durbin of FirstEnergy.

FirstEnergy is only installing smart meters if the homeowner agrees to participate. They're in 5,000 homes along the I-271 corridor. If that works, almost 40,000 more meters will be installed next spring.

"We want to keep it measured. Keep it targeted to really get an appreciation for do these things really work? Do people accept them?" Durbin said.

Acceptance is challenging for utilities. Negative headlines over billing and even fires have captured consumer attention.

"If I had not been awake I could have died," Margie Albernaz said.

In Florida, 30 fires were reported after more than two million smart meters were installed.

"Nothing happened until a new meter got put on an old part," Albernaz said.

Updated electrical wiring is key to preventing a fire. Sometimes consumers have to pay for the upgrades. Two consumers complained to the PUCO about the $500 price tag.

"That's the first I heard of it," Snitchler said.

The PUCO said it's listening and learning from problems in other states, and it's too early to tell if this program will move forward in Ohio.

The question is -- do the benefits outweigh the costs? Right now, 15 cents of your FirstEnergy bill is paying for smart meters. Plus, billions in federal tax dollars were given to utilities to jumpstart these programs. FirstEnergy received $57 million.

Federal funding is playing a big role. Dayton Power and Light lost its funding and it withdrew its plan to roll out smart meters.

FirstEnergy said the average cost for the meter and installation is about $150 a home.

"At the end of the day there is an expense that comes with the smart meter and we have to be able to demonstrate to consumers that adoption of the technology really will result in customer savings. That's why these pilot programs are so useful," Snitchler said.

The programs have been under way in Ohio for several years, but Snitchler said it's still too early to tell if the technology is paying off here. He believes education is key in getting consumers to understand and use the meters.

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