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Opting Out

Providing reasonable options for customers who object to smart meters.

Fortnightly Magazine - January 2012

service and efficiency. The customers’ requirements are driven by the desire to avoid exposure to low-level radio waves.

It’s difficult to avoid exposure to low-level radio waves in the modern world. Even if one has no radio transmitters in the home, or even the neighborhood, radio waves blanket huge areas of North America from a wide variety of radio and television sources, telecommunication systems, public safety systems, household appliances, commercial security systems, the sun, orbiting satellites, and others. Much of this blanket operates continuously, creating a background that varies widely but isn’t zero, in many populated areas. National Public Radio reported on Sept. 14, 2011, that to escape this blanket, some individuals who believe they suffer from exposure to radio background are moving to an area of West Virginia that has been a federal radio quiet zone since 1958 to facilitate studying very low-level radio signals from space.

In such a pervasive radio blanket, it isn’t clear that it’s meaningful to completely eliminate occasional exposure to a very small radio source, such as a smart meter. Therefore, the various ways to implement an opt-out service include a few that incur very small and infrequent radio emissions, with others that produce zero emissions.

The present approaches to metering an opt-out customer include those summarized in Figure 2. In addition to the costs shown in Figure 2, these alternatives incur costs for some or all of the following:

Bolstering the meter communication network to make up for the fact that the opt-out meter isn’t supporting the data transfer functions of that network: Smart meters commonly support each other by passing data from one to another. The opt-out meter won’t participate in such a mesh network, and this might require additional radio devices elsewhere in the network for proper system operation. In addition, other smart metering functions are compromised by opt-out accounts—outage restoration, for example—and this further increases utility costs.

Maintaining an additional meter type in the inventory, including the associated testing and maintenance equipment, and staff training to operate that equipment.

Establishing and maintaining one or more additional data schema in the utility meter data records.

Establishing and keeping records that separately identify and manage opt-out accounts.

Meter reading costs: In some approaches, this can be reduced by having the customer read the meter some of the time. But this incurs some added cost to create and support that process, and to deal with the errors that occur when customers misread—or fail to read—their meters.

Call center operations to properly respond to calls about opt-out service, including staff training.

One possible approach to minimizing the manual meter reading costs for opt-out accounts is to have the customer read the meter and mail the reading to the utility. Many utilities have done this for years. Usually, the utility reads the meter quarterly or annually to confirm the accuracy of the readings. Electric meters can be difficult for customers to read, particularly those with mechanical dials, some of which rotate in confusing directions. Customer reads therefore have a higher error