smart meter

When winter home heating costs soar, it’s easy to blame consumer demand or supply-side gouging. But the culprit may be your “smart meter.”

In January, local news in Saginaw, Michigan received hundreds of reports of higher-than-normal utility bills. While the local electric and gas utility, Consumers Energy, blamed the cold of a Michigan winter, customers who relied on wood-fire heating saw dramatic rises as well.

But if Michiganders really want to get to the bottom of their high heating bills, they may want to take a closer look at the new smart meters their utility companies are aggressively marketing and installing.

There have been questions about the reliability of these new “smart meters” for some time. Last year, analysts at University of Twente in the Netherlands found more than half of commonly-used smart meters tested reported higher values than the electricity actually used.

Those reported numbers were up to nearly six times the real power used.

Smart meters also don’t play nice with solar. Meters in California were found not to be able to ‘spin backward’ and reduce the bills of customers who provide energy back to the grid.

While Consumers Energy did not respond to Grit Post’s request for comment, a spokesperson told WNEM that they thoroughly tested meters and do not believe a problem with the technology exists. Consumers’ offered to send people out to inspect suspected faulty meters.

One such test on a meter that registered $1700 of use over two months found that even with the home’s power totally shut off, it was still recording power consumption which Consumers attributed to a refrigerator in the customer’s garage.

It might not even be Consumers Energy’s fault, as it can be difficult to determine if any single meter is functioning properly outside of a controlled environment.

The complaints about meters extend to another major Michigan power company as well.

DTE Energy, formerly Detroit Edison, operates over three million smart meters in southeast Michigan. DTE spokesperson Roneisha Mullen defended what the company prefers to call “advanced metering,” saying that smart meters actually save the customer money.

“I think the bottom line is that customers need to be aware of their energy consumption,” Mullen told Grit Post. “We do have tools to help customers monitor their energy use in real time.”

Mullen also highlighted that smart meters can help troubleshooting outage events and helps pinpoint where the damage that caused an outage is located. DTE also has an opt-out option available for it’s customers where the smart meters will still be installed, but its wireless reporting is disabled.

DTE does not, however, permit customers to refuse a smart meter entirely and takes dramatic action to push for their installation.

Opting out of the wireless reporting may not seem like a major part of the smart metering debate, but is was for Linda Kurtz. Kurtz established and serves as director of the Michigan Smart Meter Education Network, which she founded after feeling ill in the presence of a home with three smart meters. Her health concerns are shared by many though the exact science behind it is rigorously debated.

Less up for debate was the fact that her DTE bill rose 250 percent after she was upgraded to a smart meter.

“It’s not the cold, because we had frigid weather a month before as well,” Kurtz said. “I have lived in that house for 21 years. I have never had a bill that high and I have never had a bill spike out of nowhere.”

Smart meters aren’t just a Michigan thing.

In Oregon, a fervent debate over smart meters raised the specter of something known as ‘time of use’ pricing. Time of use pricing is used for industrial customers in Canada, and charges those customers more based on hour-to-hour usage averages in a service area. Oregonian utilities want to implement this policy on individual households.

And in Maine, the unreliability of smart meters led to an apparent system-wide crash of the technology in October. Central Maine Power Co. disputed this, saying the crash was only across half their system and not wholly system-wide.

As new metering technology rolls out across the globe, it’s important to ask the question if that technology has proven itself ready to replace the work of almost 35,000 American meter readers and the current time-tested metering technologies.


Katelyn Kivel is a journalist and political scientist in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.

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