Taking the Road Less Traveled

As I’ve mentioned before, I live in a small town-about 20,000 people-that owns and operates the electric and water utilities. Until recently, all residential electric and water meters were analog and some were more than 50 years old. City officials knew that many of these meters were not accurate, that it was losing a lot of water through leaks and substantial revenue through inaccurate electric and water meter readings. In addition, a number of the residential meters were still self-read. Because most of the city’s operating revenue comes from its utility operations, officials decided to make the move to smart meters to reduce revenue and water losses, improve efficiency and eventually pass along time-of-use rates, which it is already paying to its power supplier. They were and still are convinced this was the right thing to do and I am, too.

It’s unfortunate, however, that they failed to include the city’s residents in their plans. They thought one or two short articles in the local newspaper about their plans to move to smart meters was adequate communication. They didn’t let people know beforehand when they were coming out to change their meters, nor did they let them know when their new smart meters had been installed. And, even when they began to get wind of the fact that some customers were complaining about higher bills, were worried about the health effects of smart meters and were beginning to organize through social media, they remained mostly unconcerned. They acted as if those people’s concerns were unjustified and didn’t need to be addressed.

Because my husband is a member of the city council, I know firsthand city leaders have since learned differently. They are beginning to understand that they could have been better communicators, that social media is a powerful platform for unhappy customers, that transparency is not a bad thing and that customer education is important.

The latest information from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) says that approximately 52 million smart meters have been installed in the U.S. Some 46 million are residential, which accounts for more than 45 percent of all U.S. residences. My little town is not the first to go down this road. Many municipalities, cooperatives and investor-owned utilities have experienced struggles and unhappy customers during smart meter rollouts. They’ve learned lessons and developed best practices.

So, how did this happen to my town? The vendor that provided the smart meters has been through similar experiences with many previous customers. Why didn’t that company warn city leaders and inform them about the importance of customer education? Why didn’t our city’s leaders already know what could happen? Plenty has been written and published on the pitfalls of smart meter rollouts.

As the wife of a councilman who can no longer go to dinner or a movie or even a friend’s house without having to hear about someone’s electric bill, I am a little miffed. I’d like to interject my knowledge and opinion during these discussions, but learned early on most people don’t want to hear facts; this is an emotional issue with many.

Our city leaders recently conducted a “town hall” type meeting for customers to voice their concerns. In addition, the city manager has issued a letter explaining how smart meters work, why the city chose to install them and how the utilities department is helping those with high bills determine the reason. This is the right thing to do, but these actions and explanations will be much less impactful now than they would have been if the city had taken these actions early on.

Successful utilities will be those utilities that value their customers and treat them like they matter. While many customers don’t have a choice over their electricity provider now, they will someday and they will remember how they’ve been treated by their utility. So, even if it’s more work and worry up front, in the end, it pays to take the road less traveled by many utilities and inform and educate your customers about your plans.

Teresa Hansen, editor in chief

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