Tucson Electric Power customers who have opted out of using digital electric meters citing health concerns are up in arms over a new fee being imposed, calling it unfair and excessive.
Gil and Bobbie Vasquez had TEP remove their automated electric meter and install an older-style, analog meter last year, amid concerns over the effects of the radio waves it gave off, since cancer runs in their family.
But in mid-March, the retired couple were shocked to get a letter from TEP, saying they would be charged $26 per month to keep their analog meter at their Midvale Park home.
Unwilling to pay the fee, the Vasquezes have asked TEP to reinstall an automated meter.
Bobbie Vasquez said she understands the reason behind the fees but considers them exorbitant and unaffordable on a fixed income.
“Five or 10 bucks, that wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s $26? Really?” Bobbie Vasquez said.
The new fee, as well as a $38 one-time setup fee, applies to about 1,000 TEP customers who have asked to keep the older meters because of the radio waves emitted, as well as privacy and safety worries.
The new meter opt-out fee was approved, along with a one-time $38 setup fee, by the Arizona Corporation Commission as part of its TEP rate decision in February. Customers were notified in early March.
TEP spokesman Joe Barrios said the fees are intended to recover the utility’s costs not only for having a worker travel and read a customer’s meter but to process the data separately.
“It takes time and effort to send somebody out to read it, but there’s more to it than that,” Barrios said.
Customers of UNS Electric, a sister company to TEP that serves Santa Cruz and Mohave counties, also are charged $26 monthly for opting out of automated meters.
TEP has eliminated an option for customers without automated meters to self-read their own meters, because it wasn’t cost-effective, Barrios said, noting that TEP had to read those customers’ meters every four months anyway to ensure accuracy.
A local activist who has complained to TEP about the fees said it’s unfair to charge people to avoid something that is potentially hazardous to their health.
“It’s a lot of money and if you’re low-income or fixed-income, or you prefer to live in a low-tech way, to spend more than $300 a year just to have a meter that doesn’t harm you to me seems exorbitant,” said Elizabeth Kelley, a TEP customer who heads the nonprofit Electromagnetic Safety Alliance.
HEALTH RISKS DEBATED
Like other utilities, TEP contends smart meters emit such low levels of radio waves that they do not pose a health risk, citing a 2014 study by the Arizona Department of Health Services.
The ADHS report, issued in October 2014, surveyed available studies on the health effects of electromagnetic radiation, which have focused largely on emissions from cellphones.
The state agency also conducted limited field experiments, finally concluding that the levels of radiation from transmitting electric meters falls well below U.S. and international standards for short-term exposure, though more studies are needed to determine the effects of long-term exposure.
But Kelley, whose group was a formal party to the smart-meter proceedings, said the ADHS survey of scientific studies left out some important non-utility studies.
Many studies use national and international standards that focus on limiting the thermal, or heating effects, of radio waves, while some scientists contend that radiating devices can cause non-thermal damage, she added.
Kelley said the Corporation Commission also ignored the testimony of an expert her group engaged during the smart-meter proceedings who warned that evidence is building that smart meters can harm human health.
She and other activists point out that the World Health Organization has classified radio frequency electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic” to humans. The 2011 classification was based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, associated with wireless phone use.
Nationally, at least 15 states allow customers to opt out of smart meters, either at no additional charge or with monthly fees generally ranging from about $5 to $28, with most under $20 and one, Portland General Electric, charging $45 a month.
TEP first asked for meter opt-out fees in 2013, seeking a $20 setup fee and $10 monthly fees for customers who opted out, with a $5 self-reading discount.
The Corporation Commission balked at approving the fees and instead held statewide proceedings on the safety, health and privacy issues surrounding smart meters, asking the state Department of Health Services to study the issue.
In 2015 the Corporation Commission voted to rescind its decision to allow Arizona Public Service Co. to charge smart-meter opt-out fees of $50 per setup and $5 monthly, citing potential legal issues and pushing the issue to a full rate case. APS initially had sought monthly fees of $30.
The same fees are included in a proposed, widely supported settlement of APS’s pending rate case.
Some local ratepayers have no options. Trico Electric Cooperative, which serves rural areas of Pima, Pinal, and Santa Cruz counties, does not allow members to opt out of using its automated-reading meters.
The Salt River Project, a self-governed water and electric utility serving the Phoenix area, adopted smart meters early on and since 2011 has been charging customers $20 a month to opt out, with no initial setup charge.
Amid weightier issues involving new time-of-use and demand-charge rate plans and the billing treatment of customers with rooftop solar, the meter opt-out fee didn’t see much debate at the Corporation Commission.
The $26 monthly charge was included in proposed rate schedules filed by TEP and supported in written testimony by an expert for the Corporation Commission’s utilities staff, though he recommended a reduced initial setup fee that was adopted.
The state Residential Utility Consumer Office, which advocates for ratepayers, did not object to the monthly fee.
Jordy Fuentes, a spokesman for RUCO, said the opt-out fee wasn’t discussed in detail during rate hearings, but the agency agrees that opting out can add system costs.
“But it should be in line with their actual cost of service,” said Fuentes, noting that the agency backs the APS settlement with lower fees.
Fuentes said RUCO will monitor complaints about the meter fee and possibly revisit the issue.
Normally the Corporation Commission would have to agree to formally rehear the rate decision to make changes, which is rare.
But the rate-design part of TEP’s rate decision technically was kept open for 18 months in case adjustments are needed as TEP moves into second-phase rate proceedings to address the treatment of customers with rooftop solar.
While the federal government has encouraged smart-meter deployment in the name of energy efficiency and has even funded such deployments, state smart-meter policies vary widely.
Pennsylvania requires electric customers to use smart meters; at the other end of the spectrum, New Hampshire requires customers’ written consent to install a smart meter.
More than 50 local governments in California moved to ban smart meters, though the legality of those moves is disputed.