LIHUE — It didn’t matter that smart meters weren’t on the agenda.
A handful of people still testified about them Tuesday during Kauai Island Utility Cooperative’s regular board meeting.
Before opening up to public comment, Board Chair Allan Smith discussed the board’s recent decision to charge new fees for old meters.
In late August, the board voted to ask the Public Utilities Commission to approve a one-time service fee for customers who requested that their smart meters be replaced with an older meter after Sept. 30.
The PUC returned the request and asked KIUC to look at all costs related to reading and servicing old meters. During a special meeting Oct. 2, the utility resubmitted its request, this time including an additional $10.27 monthly fee for those who don’t use smart meters.
“One of the reasons we moved quickly was that a growing number of customers were being urged by people going door-to-door to call KIUC and replace their new meters for ‘free,’” Smith said. “It’s not free.”
Co-op member Kathleen Viernes, of Kapaa, testified Tuesday that those people aren’t going door-to-door because they have nothing better to do, but because they have real concerns about the technology.
“You think it’s just some radical fringe edge,” she said, one of four people to testify. “In my neighborhood it’s elder people, it’s middle-aged people, it’s young people with kids. They’re not the sort of people that have nothing better to do than cause a fuss. There’s a serious concern about it.”
Smith said some have characterized it as an issue of fairness.
“I wholeheartedly agree,” Smith said.
Out of the utility’s 30,000 customers, about 3,000 have opted not to have smart meters, which use wireless technology to transmit data on electrical use back to KIUC. Reading and servicing that 10 percent is expected to cost the cooperative $340,000 per year.
“And so the board voted to charge the members who are causing the cost,” Smith said. “We believe this is the fairest approach.”
Jonathan Jay disagrees. Earlier this month, he, Adam Asquith and Douglas Wilmore drafted a petition to reject both proposed fees, arguing that the co-op should not single out certain customers.
In a recent email, Jay described the petition as a “broad push back against unfair, punitive and retaliatory billing by KIUC to those households who elected to retain their analog meters.”
Around 300 members have already signed the petition, and Jay said he is aiming for another 100 before the Nov. 14 deadline. KIUC’s board policies requires at least 250 valid signatures for the petition to be considered during a special committee meeting.
KIUC President and CEO David Bissell said charging members who opt out of the smart meter program is standard utility practice.
“Cost causers are cost payers,” he said. “We’re not paving new ground here. We’re following what’s been done in other places.”
In his report to the board, Dennis Esaki, the Hawaii director of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said the association endorses the smart meters for their many benefits, including reducing the number of vehicles on the road.