After months of fielding complaints about smart electric meters, the Texas Public Utility Commission will hold an open meeting Tuesday morning in Austin to hear testimony from opponents and supporters of the technology. In advance of the forum, the commission has made special plans to accommodate a large crowd.
“We’ve got a little larger venue to accommodate people,” said Terry Hadley, the commission's communications director. Tuesday's meeting will be held in the John H. Reagan State Office Building instead of the William B. Travis building, where the commission typically meets. Hadley said the new room could accommodate "a couple hundred people" and is nearly double the size of the PUC's typical meeting place.
The PUC has received hundreds of comments about smart meters since February, many of them from Texans wanting to opt out of the meter program.
Hadley said more than 5.8 million smart electric meters have been installed around Texas as of Aug. 1; that's about 87 percent of the total number that the PUC intends to deploy. The installations, which add up to $3 a month to electric bills, began around 2009, bolstered by laws encouraging the fast deployment of the new technology and by Department of Energy grants aimed at creating a new smart grid. Hadley's numbers pertain to "competitive," or deregulated, areas of the Texas power grid; some additional smart meters are also being installed by municipal utilities like Austin Energy.
Smart meters allow electric users and power companies to track power usage in 15-minute intervals. Smart meters are also capable of sending signals to certain specially equipped devices — such as appliances and thermostats — and controlling their power usage remotely.
Proponents of smart meters say that they can help track usage and control costs with the increased availability of data. Comments against them have been more far afield, such as ratepayers complaining about higher-than-normal bills and concerns over the safety of the signals the meters send.
At least one lawmaker has written to the commission expressing concern over the smart meters.
“I am greatly concerned that the implementation of smart meters has gone beyond the purview of the law by forcing them on consumers. This was not the intent of the legislation,” state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, wrote to the commission in March. Bonnen helped author the 2005 law that permitted power companies to add a surcharge.
Texas power companies do not offer an opt-out for customers who do not want to have a smart meter installed.
The resistance against smart meters is often seen as a Tea Party issue. Cathy Carriger, one of the organizers of the anti-meter group Ban Texas Smart Meters, said she is member of the Tea Party movement, as are many others in the group. Ban Texas Smart Meters plans to have more than 60 people at Tuesday's meeting.
Carriger said her group is concerned that its Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure are violated by the information collected by the smart meters.
“I think the whole country has just rushed into this,” Carriger said. “It’s not just a Tea Party issue. It’s an issue for people who are concerned about their health and their privacy.”
The hearing will also be live-streamed on the PUC website. It is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m.