Only customers with smart meters can signup for demand response programs.

The energy efficiency devices work with digital smart meters.

A long-delayed program intended to deliver high-tech energy savings to low-income Texans may finally be getting back on track.

But questions remain — including whether large numbers of low-income Texans will avail themselves of the new technology.

The devices included in the program — including programmable communicating thermostats — work with digital smart meters already installed at homes throughout the state. Under the program, low-income Texans could receive the smart meter-enabled devices for free.

The utility industry has aggressively hyped the smart meters with the promise that they will allow Texans to better control their day-to-day energy usage.  The low-income program was first contemplated about six years ago in the hope that it would allow poorer households to share in some of the supposed benefits of the smart meter technology.

But, as was reported earlier by Jim Malewitz of the Texas Tribune, there has been very little progress toward implementation. The state’s major transmission and distribution providers were instructed in 2008 and 2009 to set aside more than $18 million to fund the device distribution program, but so far the money remains unspent. There was a suggestion by the PUC in 2010 that the program would be finalized by December 2011, but that milestone came and went and still the program had not progressed beyond the planning stages.

This month, however, a PUC working group submitted a proposal under which electric providers could become eligible for reimbursements for providing low-income customers with certain smart-meter enabled devices. The reimbursement typically would not exceed $300 to $425 per device, depending on the sort of device installed.

“Any (retail electric provider) may participate, subject to program requirements,” the Sept. 19 proposal states. Under it, REPs also must provide customers instructions on using the devices and their benefits.

PUC staff also has proposed a public workshop for Oct. 9 to further discuss the proposals. Staff said the distribution plan could be implemented by January 2015.

Smart meters have helped the state’s transmission and distribution utilities more efficiently deal with outages, and have accelerated electricity connections and disconnections. Some retail electric providers also have begun offering specialized smart meter-enabled deals in which customers can receive small billing rebates for reducing their energy usage during key periods.

But in general the meters have not delivered much in the way of savings for Texas ratepayers — despite the hype from transmission and distribution utilities. Instead, most Texas ratepayers are paying surcharges of $2 or $3 per month for the devices.

It also remains unclear whether large numbers of low-income Texans would regularly avail themselves of the new smart-meter enabled technology — given that advanced meter technology has not commanded overwhelming interest among consumers generally.

According to a recent report from an energy efficiency advocacy group, less than 1 percent of Texans with smart meters have ever logged into the state’s online portal to view their usage data. Less than 1/5th of one percent of customers employ smart-meter enabled energy savings devices, according to the report.

— R.A. Dyer

What is the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power?

TCAP is a coalition of more than 160 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.