Petition protests meter fees

LIHUE — A new petition hopes to pull the plug on Kauai Island Utility Cooperative’s proposal to charge new fees for old meters.

Last week, a petition was drafted to reject both the non-standard meter set-up charge and the monthly fee. Petition initiators Adam Asquith, Jonathan Jay and Douglas Wilmore believe it is unfair to single out certain members for the added surcharge.

KIUC maintains the fees are only fair, so as not to burden the entire membership with the “labor-intensive cost of old technology.”

“From the beginning, we’ve said, ‘If you don’t want to have a smart meter, you don’t have to have one,’” said KIUC’s Jim Kelly. “We’ve never said, ‘If you don’t want to have a smart meter, you don’t have to pay not to have (one).’”

In late August, KIUC announced that after Sept. 30, co-op members would be charged a one-time service fee for requesting their smart meter be replaced with an old, non-standard meter.

The charges were expected to range from $81 for a residential meter to $290 for a commercial one. In a press release last week, the proposed fee was reduced to $50.64 for residential meters, and between $65.64 and $138.80 for commercial.

The co-op is also proposing to charge an additional $10.27 monthly fee to customers who don’t use smart meters.

Until KIUC receives approval from the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, switching back to an old meter costs nothing.

The PUC could reject KIUC’s filing, change the effective date of Nov. 4 or raise or lower the proposed amount, he said.

Out of the utility’s 30,000 customers, about 3,000 — up from 2,700 one month ago — have opted not to have smart meters, which use wireless technology to transmit data on electrical use back to KIUC.

“In the last month we’ve had hundreds of people calling up,” Kelly said.

Co-op member Kathleen Viernes, of Kapaa, said one of her main concerns is that smart meters are capable of gathering data about what is going on inside the home.

“It is an invasion of privacy and that’s the bottom line, and you should have the chance to opt-out of that,” she said. “With KIUC, they’re saying, ‘If you want to have your privacy, you’re going to pay for your privacy.’ And that just goes against my grain.”

Kelly said KIUC had budgeted for 2013 under the assumption that most of the meter reader positions would go away. However, due to the high number of opt-outs, the co-op has been forced to keep 3.5 meter reader positions, which will cost an estimated $340,000 per year, Kelly said.

“The guy going out to read one meter is a lot more expensive than a guy going out to read 100 meters,” he said. “We lose the efficiency there.”

In the past, before Kauai had smart meters, KIUC employed six full-time workers, tasked with reading meters around the island. That work cost an estimated $800,000 annually, according to Kelly.

“We were hoping to go from six to one-half of a meter reader if everybody got a smart meter,” he said. “It hasn’t worked out that way.”

Initially, the one-time service fee proposal included the price of the meter itself. That is no longer the case.

“There’s some disagreement over whether that should be included or not,” Kelly said. “We just went back and put it to $50.64, which is just the labor, installation cost of going out and switching out a meter.”

KIUC says the proposed charges are similar to those of other utilities using smart meters on the Mainland.

The proposed fees cover the costs caused by those who must have their meter read manually, according to Kelly.

Local concern over the technology — including health risks and privacy — has continued to grow since KIUC’s announcement of the Sept. 30 deadline. On Oct. 7 alone, Kelly said he received three new requests from co-op members wanting to switch back to their old meters.

“People have very strong feelings about the smart meters,” he said, adding that most utilities in the U.S. have not offered its customers the same kind of opt-out options.

It has even reached a point where many members not only want to get rid of their smart meters, but don’t want the digital meters. Instead, many have requested the older mechanical meters.

“There have been whole neighborhoods that have said ‘we don’t want a smart meter’, Kelly said.

In May 2012, KIUC began its islandwide installation of 30,000 residential and commercial smart meters. The $11 million price tag was split between the co-op and the federal government.

• Chris D’Angelo, environmental reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or cdangelo@thegardenisland.com.

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