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Arizona

Consumer Advocates Question the Benefits of Smart Meters

AARP says more consumer protection is needed

Arizona State Page News March 2011

Rudolph and Catherine Soto outside their Glendale home. — Andy Delisle/Wonderful Machine

"Utilities used to pat themselves on the back for being a presence in neighborhoods. They were another pair of eyes to spot residents who need help," she said.

Soto has sleep apnea and uses a breathing machine at night. He has an agreement with SRP that it will not disconnect him without prior notice. He urges other people with medical conditions that require constant power to contact their utilities. Customers who show proof (such as letters from their doctors) that they have a medical condition that requires energy-dependent equipment such as respirators or breathing machines, can ask to be placed on a "do not cut off" list for power.

Consumer advocates also argue that the utilities should bear a greater share of the meters' cost. The utilities do not specifically charge to install smart meters but spread the costs to all customers.

"The cost of the new smart meters should be shared by the utility and not borne entirely by the consumer," Jennings said.

Alexander urges state regulators and lawmakers to create additional consumer protections to keep up with the technology. Privacy is an issue, she said, because utilities are gathering an immense amount of information about how we live. They know when you are home and what appliances you are running. "Many businesses would love to have access to that kind of information."

Utilities say concerns unwarranted

Arizona utility executives dismiss those concerns, saying state law prohibits selling customer information. They also point to their cybersecurity safeguards, but Alexander notes that hackers sometimes break into seemingly secure databases.

Ellen Zuckerman of the Arizona branch of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project said smart meter installation needs to be accompanied by consumer outreach and education. Otherwise, she said, "consumers might not know how to realize the benefits of this technology."

Although California residents have made thousands of complaints about smart meters to the state's utility regulatory commission, hardly any have been filed here, said Arizona Corporation Commission spokeswoman Rebecca Wilder. She said customers with concerns about smart meters should call their utility company first. If they still aren't satisfied, they can contact the commission by calling the consumer service line at 1-800-222-7000 or they can e-mail mailmaster@azcc.gov.

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