Lowe, of SRP, said he is only aware of about a dozen complaints, primarily from customers who have seen their bills go up when the new meters were installed. It has usually been for one of two reasons: either a meter was installed just before a hot spell and customers linked a higher bill with the meter change or customers had older mechanical meters that had become less accurate with age. He said the new meters are more accurate.
Prepaid meters result in higher rates
Another concern is that the smart meters will accelerate the move toward prepaid utility services (similar to prepaid cellphones) for poor-credit customers. The Salt River Project, the nation's third largest utility, is already considered a national leader in prepaid power metering for low-income families. A review of M-Power, as it is called, by the Arizona Republic in 2010 showed the program results in higher rates and automatic disconnections for the poor. Traditional regulation, bypassed by prepaid metering, discouraged utilities from disconnecting the elderly poor.
Arizona Public Service is also moving into prepaid power. The Arizona Corporation Commission in February granted APS permission to install 2,000 prepay meters, a move strongly opposed by AARP.
"APS sold this as a way of getting ratepayers to conserve energy. It definitely will — when a senior's money runs out the meter automatically makes the house go dark." Jennings said. "This plan removes the current legal protection that a personal visit is required before electricity can be terminated. … Our citizens deserve better from the Arizona Corporation Commission than their quick approval of the utility's plan with a promise to address consumer protection later."
AARP Arizona is looking for volunteers to attend Arizona Corporation Commission meetings when issues related to smart meters come up on future agendas.
"We need to keep informed on this important issue," Jennings said. Call 1-866-389-5649 toll-free if you'd like to volunteer.
Maureen West is a freelance writer based in Phoenix.