Written on: November 22, 2016
The extra bells and whistles – and who, ultimately, pays for them – has taken center stage in an ongoing debate over the state’s under-utilized SmartMeterTexas website for electric consumers.
The website, in theory, can help Texans save money by providing them with detailed consumption information from their digital electric meters. But a relatively small number of eligible Texans access the site, which also has been dogged by questions of cost and functionality.
Smart Meter Texas is operated by a consortium of transmission and distribution providers and financed through charges to ratepayers. In comments to regulators this month, consumer groups cautioned against charging ratepayers for non-essential functions and also questioned whether Texans without digital “smart” meters likewise should be required to underwrite the website.
According to estimates, only 1 percent of eligible customers have accessed the Smart Meter Texas site, which costs more than $9 million annually. As such, regulators should consider carefully “how much it will allow other ratepayers to subsidize SMT users,” cautioned the Oncor Cities Steering Committee, a city coalition.
In a Nov. 18 filing at the Texas Public Utility Commission, the city group also said that if a third-party business requests more functionality for the website, then that new functionality should first be funded by the business and the amount only recovered through rates if the functionality receives regulatory approval. “Cities want to make it clear, however, that approval of a particular functionality should not automatically make all the costs incurred to develop the functionality reasonable (for rate-setting purposes),” wrote Jamie Mauldin, an attorney for the Oncor Cities Steering Committee.
By plugging meter-specific information into the Smart Meter Texas website, consumers can track their electricity usage on a monthly or daily basis, or even in 15-minute intervals. The website also allows Texans to make use of energy-saving “Home Area Network” devices — such as smart thermostats and smart appliances — that work with digital smart meters.
An energy efficiency trade group, the South-Central Partnership for Energy Efficiency as a Resource, has called Smart Meter Texas a “major step in the right direction” toward creating a more efficient grid. But it also has acknowledged that the public’s usage of the site is extremely low.
The Steering Committee of Cities Served by Oncor, a sister group to the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power, has expressed concern that the cost of the website functions may outweigh the benefits.
The PUC is expected to consider comments from the city group and other interested organizations before publishing new rules governing Smart Meter Texas in early 2017.
R.A. Dyer is a policy analyst for TCAP, a coalition of cities and other political subdivisions that purchase electricity in the deregulated market for their own governmental use. Because high energy costs can impact municipal budgets and the ability to fund essential services, TCAP, as part of its mission, actively promotes affordable energy policies. High energy prices also place a burden on local businesses and home consumers.