When your electric company doesn’t tell you what’s happening

After he saw my report on Oncor Electric Delivery’s poor outage information system a week ago, reader Doug Edwards of Dallas summarized my findings better in 18 words than I did in a thousand.

“It looks like you got the brush off from Oncor everybody else is. They always say `Tomorrow, Tomorrow …’ ” was the message he sent via my Twitter feed.

He’s right.

I had asked Oncor why the company couldn’t do better at providing power outage information to the public, especially during a major storm.

This is a Dave Lieber report for WatchdogNation.com.

But what happened? I got steered into an explanation about how everything will be better in two or three years because we’ll have smart meters.

So last week, I tried again. I pressed Oncor harder when I previewed its new smart meter exhibit, soon to be visiting a county fair near you.

Because North Texas gets its share of severe weather, it’s hard to understand why Oncor won’t do a better job of informing the public when neighborhoods are dark, when crews are working to restore power and when it’s finally restored.

Oncor doesn’t offer that service. That also means that the news media can’t report the latest information to a wider public.

Yet last week I found two electricity transmission companies similar to Oncor that do tell their customers what is happening during bad weather in modern, quick and efficient ways.

AEP Texas, which serves a giant swath of West Texas, presents on its Web site a real-time listing and accompanying color map — broken down by ZIP code — that shows how many customers have lost power.

The information comes from telephone complaints by customers, which are then transferred to the Web site, spokesman Larry Jones said. The site is updated every few minutes. Parent company American Electric Power offers real-time outage alerts in the 11 states it serves.

In Florida, Kissimmee Utility Authority created an outage alert system five years ago that sends text alerts or e-mails to anyone who signs up, giving the number of affected customers by ZIP code. Updates give customers an idea of how quickly the problem is being fixed.

Spokesman Chris Gent says the authority’s system preceded Twitter, which was developed a year later. Now the authority offers both a Twitter feed and its original system to customers.

The service is inexpensive, he said, because it was designed in-house and is run by staff.

The authority is experimenting with GPS devices on work trucks so that information can eventually be used, too.

Several readers called and questioned my plea for a strong Internet alert system for Oncor customers. They said they wouldn’t have electricity to access a Web site.

Remember that hand-held phones and laptops are often battery-powered. Friends and relatives can relay information to you from elsewhere. The news media uses the information. And all of this is important for families that have evacuated and want to learn when they can return.

Does Oncor have any plans to offer an outage alert system?

At the smart-meter exhibit in Lancaster, spokeswoman Jeamy Molina answered, “We’re just not at a place where that can be done right now. It goes back to the grid with the whole outage system. We know when there are widespread outages. We know where that is. It goes back to our restoration process and how it works.

“We understand that there are places that Oncor can improve on its customer service and dealing with these kinds of things. And of course, these will be things that we’ll take into account when we start seeing what we could have done better before the next storm. So that will be something that will come up. But right now, Oncor is not at that place.”

What about the near future?

“It’s stuff that will be talked about, of course,” she continued. “We’ll take this back to our team. We have to review steps about what could be done.”

As my Twitter pal sang in his tweet: “Tomorrow, Tomorrow …”

No system’s perfect

OK, I have a smart-meter story for you. Those are the 21st-century meters that connect directly to the electric company. You can monitor your power usage and set your smart appliances to run at off-peak times. Most Texas electric customers will have one in a few years.

Oncor took a lot of, uh, heat from customers in recent weeks in Killeen and Temple. Soon after their smart meters were installed, their bills jumped. But Oncor says that the increase was due to the cold weather and that it tested about 500 meters and all were accurate.

Even though smart meters are designed to eliminate humans and our errors, there is still that possibility. When an old meter is removed, the final reading is recorded by — gasp — a human.

And wouldn’t you know it? Sometimes people make mistakes. About a dozen so far when it comes to smart-meter conversions, Oncor says.

There’s this one fellow who had a smart meter installed nine months ago at his home in the Austin area (not served by Oncor).

When he received the first bill afterward, he recalls, “It looked like they overcharged me 1,000 kilowatts.”

He called Austin Energy to complain. “The meter reader, in closing out, put the decimal point in the wrong place,” he says. “I was charged an extra 1,000 kwh. So there’s that potential element for human error.”

And who is this fellow who was done wrong?

His name is Terry Hadley.

His job?

He’s the spokesman for the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

If it can happen to him …

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber