Smart meters become urban legends

Smart meters are coming to your house. Eventually. But as the first wave of North Texans gets those digital meters, they are becoming the stuff of urban legend.

Look at what has happened to Oncor Electric Delivery.

Dave Lieber writes about Oncor's smart meters

This smart meter exhibit created by Oncor was picketed by members of

The region’s major power supplier was energized about the rollout of the 3.4 million new digital meters. Oncor promised more control over your electric usage with real-time information about your spending.

What happened instead is a public relations disaster. Oncor’s smart meters, which debuted last month in parts of Fort Worth and Arlington, are turning into an urban legend: a story everyone hears but can’t tell whether it’s true.

In this urban legend, once a smart meter is installed, customers see a sharp spike in their next monthly electric bill.

Dave Lieber writes about smart meters.

Oncor presents a "smiley face" work inside its smart meter exhibit, but when some customers get their first bills under the new metering system, they are NOT smiling.

That belief is at the heart of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Oncor customers that cites “a dramatic and unreasonable rise” in electric bills after smart-meter installations. And a residents group,, is protesting and raising lots of questions about the meters. Group members even picketed the shining star of Oncor’s meter rollout, its traveling smart-meter exhibit trailer.

In its first five weeks, picked up 500 members.

Co-founder Ree Wattner testified before the Public Utility Commission on April 1. She asked for a three-month break in smart-meter installations. That request was denied. (To watch the broadcast, go to this site and search for the April 1, 2010 meeting to PUCT Open Meeting that shows only two parts. Click on “View part 2 of conference” and scroll to 45:30 in the timeline.)

There was a good piece of news, though, which could lead to a credible resolution.

The PUC hired Navigant Consulting to conduct a three-month investigation of smart meters in Texas. And when it comes to investigating power companies here, Navigant has a strong track record.

The company completed a nearly 400-page report in 2008 on questionable practices at the Pedernales Electric Cooperative in Central Texas. (You can read that report, which to Watchdog Nation is a textbook study of 21st century bad behavior in the pubic arena — or worse — here.) Former leaders of the cooperative face felony charges.

Navigant investigator Todd Lester, who ran that PEC inquiry, is handling the smart-meter examination. He promises detailed testing of 5,000 new digital meters in labs and in the field and side by side with old-style mechanical meters. He says he will follow the data from the meter all the way through billing, looking for flaws. Results are due in three months.

Oncor spokesman Chris Schein tells me: “So far there has not been any evidence to show there are widespread problems with either the meter accuracy or the software that would warrant us stopping the installation. If we found anything that would indicate that, we would be the first to stand up and say, ‘No more.'”

Oncor acknowledges 1,800 errors out of 800,000 meter installations. Those were human errors, not meter errors, it says.

Dallas lawyer Jason Berent, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of a Heath couple who believe they were overcharged, calls the smart-meter problem “the biggest controversy sitting just below the surface.”

His clients’ bill jumped to about $1,900 a month several months after a new meter was installed. For three months, the bill faced by Robert and Jennifer Cordts was almost $5,000, the lawsuit says.

Oncor has attributed the higher bills to the cold winter.

Tricia Lambert, the other founder of SmartURCitizens, tells me that Oncor’s strategy “is to discredit us as hystericals.”

She says calls are coming from people who are getting their electricity cut off because they can’t pay big winter bills, and she doesn’t believe that cold weather is the reason the bills shot up.

“These are hardworking Texans,” she says. “They are not ne’er-do-wells that don’t want to pay their bills. That’s who we’re fighting for.”

Schein says Oncor wants to help, not fight back. He says Oncor is doing everything it can to help customers understand their situations by “answering thousands of calls.”

One customer even sought his help on Facebook, and Schein said he happily obliged.

Tip: Become friends with Chris Schein on Facebook. After your smart meter is installed, if the next bill is high, you can either send a message or “poke” him.

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Want more? Read this latest Dave Lieber blog post about a Grapevine man who has a theory about why people believe smart meters are charging them more.

Dave Lieber writes the Dave Lieber Watchdog column at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where this report originally appeared.