Consumer Alert: Smart meters

The city of Owasso has them and so do 1,000 students at the University of Tulsa.

They're smart meters, and PSO calls them meters for the digital age.

"They're just a mechanism to provide real time information to our customers. So we can collect the information and share it to them of how much they're using to help manage their energy usage," said Derek Lewellen, with the Public Service Company of Oklahoma .

Think of a smart meter like a cell phone.

It digitally transmits data back to a hub and then to PSO. The meter allows utility companies to read your meter and turn your power off or on without ever leaving the office.

PSO employee Alex Velasco lives in Owasso, a city that's been a pilot project for PSO's smart meters for almost a year now and shows us another digital perk. You can go online to track your usage. He explained how it works.

"Today, I'm at $21 for my billing cycle and if I stay on this projected path, it's estimated that I'll be at $87," said Velasco.

Lewellen echoes Velasco when discussing the perks of being able to track usage online.

"Now I can see how much my bill is forecasted to be and I can make a decision instead of waiting until after I've received the bill and it's too late," said Lewellen.

But just because you can manage your usage, does it really save money?

We crunched the numbers and found that the city of Owasso's bills went up after smart meters were installed.

"We had the hottest dry summer since the dust bowl days," said Rodney Ray, Owasso's city manager.

But that only accounts for the summer months. Overall, Owasso's bills went up an average of $1,000 a month from the previous year. Ray says the city added stoplights, a fire station and a wastewater plant.

"Typically this is not a cost-savings program. This is a management tool that allows you to determine when and where you're going to use electricity," said Ray.

Ray expects that people will see more efficiency after another year. To find out if that's typically the case, we traveled to Norman. The city's had smart meters there for two years.

Resident Jack Goddard hasn't been impressed.

"It's a marketing program. They've marketed the program and the process, but I don't know that it was very good public information," Goddard said.

Goddard says it was marketed as "efficient" and a way to save money but, "I've had the highest bills I've ever had after the smart meter was installed," he said.

Goddard says on average, his bills have gone up about 3 to 5 percent.

Oklahoma Gas & Electric , which manages smart meters in Norman, says, "The meter's not magic. We still have to be good consumers of our energy use," said Brian Alford, a spokesperson for OG&E.

As for the city of Norman itself, we found that at the sites where smart meters were installed, the city's bill actually dropped by about 25 percent the year after the meters went in.

Still, smart meters have raised criticism across the country. Lawsuits over increased bills were brought in Texas and California but later dropped.

In Oklahoma, of the 600,000 plus installed in the state, there have been 120 complaints made to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission about smart meters.

"We've had instances where we've mis-input the data, high, low. It's both ways. I think that type of error may be what sparked a lot of the controversy and debate early on," said Alford.

Overall, Alford says in OG&E's study, 90 percent of people saved money when they followed the usage program.  That includes recommended times to run appliances and what temperature to keep your thermostat.

A lot of money is at stake.

For OG&E the project costs $360 million. Some of that came from the federal stimulus. Some came from a monthly $1 fee attached to consumers bills for three years.

But OG&E points to its own savings, such as not having to send meter readers to your house and pledges to pass $22 million that its saved back to customers.

Still, Goddard isn't sold.

"That's an awful lot of money to be investing in something you could've printed a flyer for that says 'electricity costs more in the afternoon, if you want to save money cut your usage,'" said Goddard.

PSO received money from the state Department of Commerce to start up smart meters. But again, right now its just a pilot program and crews don't have to go out homes to turn off power.

"We still have our same fees for connections and disconnections, but that's something we'll evaluate in the future," said Lewellen.

Still, in Owasso, Ray says while the cost benefit may not be seen on many homeowners' bills, "The biggest cost-savings is allowing these major companies to manage their load better."

And he says that will help draw in businesses in the future of the digital age.

As for additional smart meters being installed in Green Country, PSO's still waiting to see how the pilot program turns out.

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