Duke Energy proposes $150 opt-out fee to customers who don’t want a smart meter

A meter reader reads a customer’s electric meter and keys the information into a handheld computer. Duke Energy wants customers who don’t want a smart meter to pay a $150 one-time fee and $11.75 a month to cover the costs of manual meter reading.
A meter reader reads a customer’s electric meter and keys the information into a handheld computer. Duke Energy wants customers who don’t want a smart meter to pay a $150 one-time fee and $11.75 a month to cover the costs of manual meter reading. News & Observer file photo

In the midst of a years-long rollout of smart meters in North Carolina, Duke Energy is proposing charging $150 to customers who don’t want the meters.

These customers say the radio frequency emitted by the meters causes headaches, dizziness, ringing of the ears, memory loss and “brain fog.” The Charlotte-based power company expects that only a tiny contingent of its customers will request an alternative, but that group is objecting loudly to the meter installations and to any fees charged to avoid them. The N.C. Utilities Commission has received about 80 emails and letters urging the commission not to let Duke Energy charge the extra fees.

North Carolina’s smart meter opponents have enlisted support from a number of sympathetic advocates, too, including the Maine Coalition to Stop Smart Meters, as well as a group of academics and physicians from Harvard Medical School, University at Albany and Washington State Department of Health.

“There’s absolutely no justification at all for these fees,” said Duke customer Laura Combs. “Show me justification why you should make a little more profit at the cost of people’s health.”

Combs, who lives in Raleigh, is a customer of Duke Energy Progress, which, along with Duke Energy Carolinas, is planning to hook up 3.2 million customers in the state to smart meters. Combs – who has a master’s degree in urban and regional planning – says she suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity induced by smart meters, cellphones, wireless routers and Wi-Fi signals.

“They will be saving money through the implementation of smart meters,” Combs said. “Their vehicle and personnel costs will be reduced, so why charge people when your costs are going down for the company?”

Duke has already connected about 670,000 customers to smart meters and wants non-cooperating customers to cover the costs of being exempted from the program. Smart meters transmit usage data continuously and allow for more precise monitoring of household power consumption patterns.

“We want to make sure that all customers aren’t penalized for the costs of something requested by a handful of customers,” said Duke spokeswoman Paige Layne. “We’re going to have to find analog meters and purchase them. I don’t know if we even have an analog meter out in the field.”

In its Friday filing with the N.C. Utilities Commission, Duke says it plans to replace current “drive-by” meters, which can by read from a passing vehicle, with smart meters that can be read from a central office. An analog meter, however, will have to be read manually by a meter reader.

The N.C. Utilities Commission will next decide on a schedule to review Duke’s proposal and also if the issue requires a public hearing. Duke is requesting a one-time fee of $150 to cover the costs of meters and installation, and $11.75 a month to cover the costs of manual meter reading.

The Public Staff, an agency that represents the public in utility rate cases, is reviewing the case and will also weigh in.

“Duke is certainly willing to accommodate their customers’ desire to have a different meter,” said James McLawhorn, who directs the Public Staff’s electric division. “The question is who should pay for it, and how much they should pay.”

McLawhorn said the issue will likely be decided by several criteria: whether the customer requests are causing an expense for the utility, and whether the exemption the customers are requesting falls outside the realm of normal utility service.

Local opponents say four states don’t charge fees to customers who prefer an old-fashioned utility meter, but instead spread the costs across all their customers.

A similar issue played out for Duke in Ohio this year. In April, the Ohio Public Utilities Commission approved a one-time opt-out charge of $100 and a monthly meter-reading fee of $30 for customers who don’t want smart meters.

The Ohio commission rejected a recommendation from staff for a $38 one-time fee and a $24 monthly charge. But the Ohio commissioners also rejected Duke’s proposal: a one-time fee of $126.70 and a monthly charge of $40.63.

In this state, the Department of Health and Human Services reviewed research and concluded last year that smart meters don’t pose a health risk: “This is consistent with the conclusions of other organizations, including the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization.”

Smart meter foes have counterattacked.

“I consider proliferation of wireless emissions to be the most serious toxic contamination threat of our time,” wrote the Maine Coalition to Stop Smart Meters spokesman, Ed Friedman. “It quite simply is everywhere and effects [sic] humans, wildlife and seemingly plants.”

“I feel we are headed towards an electronic silent spring,” Friedman wrote. “One should at least be able to find protection in one’s home.”

The physicians and academics from Harvard and elsewhere expressed alarm Tuesday about smart meters’ emission of radio frequency radiation, or RFR.

“Smart meters, along with other wireless devices, have created significant public health problems caused by the RFR they produce, and awareness and reported problems continue to grow,” the group wrote. “The adverse health impacts of low intensity RFR are real, significant and for some people debilitating.”

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski