Fountain residents opposed to "smart meters" might have lost an attempt to ban them, but the City Council in the southern El Paso County town is poised to vote on three ordinances Tuesday to address some of the concerns that forced the issue onto the November 2013 ballot.
Opponents of Fountain Utilities' use of smart-meter technology tried to force the city to uninstall the meters at more than 15,000 homes. Some called the utility provider "Big Brother," claiming the technology was nothing more than a government surveillance maneuver designed to not only monitor electric usage, but to control it.
The three ordinances that council will vote on Tuesday will limit Fountain Utilities' use of customer information, ban residential "time-of-day" pricing and keep rates stable for those who opt out of the smart-meter program.
"There has just been a bit of lack of trust," said Fountain Utilities Director Curtis Mitchell.
Mitchell said the ordinances grew out of a workshop that Fountain City Council held in mid-March to specifically address smart-meter concerns.
"I think we're in a good place to move forward now," he said.
The first ordinance before council will underscore existing rules that limit the use of information transmitted from smart meters to the utilities office every 24 hours. Mitchell said such rules - based on federal and state law and the city's identify theft policy - were in place even before Fountain Utilities began installing smart meters in summer 2013. Utilities officials and the city simply want to reinforce their desire to keep sensitive, private information secure.
"Their usage is private, and it was private before we did the smart meters," Mitchell said. "It's very important for the new council to reaffirm that."
Mitchell said the biggest privacy concern was a misconception that the utility would be able to see what customers are doing in "real time." The meters transmit information only at midnight each day, he said.
The second ordinance will ensure that Fountain Utilities does not start charging residential customers more during peak usage hours.
Mitchell said the utilities provider does not generate its own electricity and purchases power from other sources. Fountain Utilities does not pay any different rate for the electricity. no matter what the time of day or the amount of usage. So, Mitchell said, "There's no financial incentive."
The utilities director said time-of-day rates are used for larger commercial business customers in town, but not for restaurants, convenience stores and other small businesses, nor residential
The final ordinance would establish a permanent "opt-out" program, and guarantee that those who participate would not face additional charges for having their meters read monthly.
Before the November election, Fountain Utilities spokeswoman Erin Garcia said a ban on smart meters would have cost customers about $5.43 million to replace those already installed and to hire an army of meter readers. That cost, and a predicted 7 percent rate increase, did not come to fruition: The ballot measure to prohibit use of the technology was voted down, with 1,519 for it and 2,295 opposed.
According to Mitchell, 15,574 smart meters have been installed in Fountain and only a couple dozen had to be removed because of opt-outs. The director said the cost to change out the meters was "still fairly minimal" and did not raise rates.
Fountain Utilities has 16,800 customers, and Mitchell said 700 to 800 have opted out of using smart meters. That was not enough to require additional meter readers.
The director expects opponents of the meters to eventually warm up to the idea.
"Over time, we feel that once customers know more about the technology, once it's proven, we expect the number (of opt outs) to go down a little bit," Mitchell said.
Proponents of smart meters say the technology allows customers easy access to their utility accounts online and improves service during emergencies and natural disasters. In the case of Hurricane Sandy, utility companies were "able to identify damaged equipment and respond more efficiently," the city of Fountain says on its website.
Matt Steiner, The Gazette