OKLAHOMA CITY — Electric bills for some residential customers would increase more than 20 percent if a Tulsa-based utility company’s proposed rate hike is approved by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
The panel heard arguments Thursday from attorneys representing American Electric Power-Public Service Company of Oklahoma and opposition groups such as AARP who advocated for its members and the public at large. The commissioners agreed to take the case under advisement, offering no timetable when a decision would be made in the $24 million rate increase case.
AARP attorney Deborah Thompson said her group is opposed to the rate hike because of the increase in minimum monthly customer charges and an uncapped surcharge that could rise depending on the cost of the smart meter installation program. She also chastised PSO for failing to implement a low income bill assistance program, which could benefit many customers, including senior citizens.
“Elderly users most often live alone, have smaller homes and have lower consumption so that monthly increase could affect them financially,” she said.
Earlier this year, a settlement was reached by PSO and some of its opponents, although final approval is required by the commission. PSO originally filed for a $45 million rate increase last year. AARP and Owasso resident Joe Esposito, who opposes the plan because of his belief that smart meters are a health danger, did not agree to the settlement.
Esposito was represented by attorney Don Powers during Thursday’s hearing.
AARP also took exception to recommendations made by Administrative Law Judge Jacqueline Miller who adopted PSO’s position in every instance during a hearing earlier this year. In a document filed with the commission, Thompson said the judge failed to protect the public’s interest by siding with PSO on every issue.
“The ALJ report rejects all of the substantive evidence submitted to the Commission by AARP in the case without any independent analysis and relies entirely on PSO’s position and report language to reject AARP’s position,” Thompson wrote.
Thompson said the minimum monthly increase jumps from $16 to $20, “a charge you can’t avoid even with zero electric consumption.”
The AARP attorney claims the additional surcharge, also known as a rider, allows PSO to recoup money outside of its regular base rate.
“This gives them $23 million more regardless of added revenues,” she said.
The surcharge will start at $3.11 a month and could rise to $4.14 a month beginning in 2016.
“This is nothing but a cost recovery issue,” Thompson said. “It’s all one-sided in favor of PSO.”
The smart meter program is estimated to cost $132 million, but that price tag could go higher and create a larger surcharge for all residential customers.
AARP State Director Sean Voskuhl said in a prepared statement that the judge’s report to the commissioners “completely ignores” consumers.
“AARP strongly objects to the judge’s recommendation that would give PSO an open checkbook to expand its flawed Smart Meter expansion program. By shifting the burden from shareholders to consumers, residential utility customers would pay nearly $133 million for Smart Meters without any evidence of long-term savings,” he said.
PSO has provided only savings estimates without any direct data to support those claims.
The utility company already has started installing Smart Meters in some of its service areas. Once fully deployed, PSO will have installed 522,000 meters statewide.
PSO customers like Anita Ingram and Janene Wooster, both of Tulsa, contend the Smart Meters are a health hazard because of the radiation that is emitted. The meters are a telecom device that tracks and records details of a customer’s energy use and automatically transit the information wirelessly to the company.
Wooster claims PSO has failed to inform its customers of potential threats from Smart Meters including privacy concerns, cyberattack vulnerability, health effects from prolonged exposure to radio frequency and microwave radiation, increased bills, inaccurate billing and the customer’s right to refuse the meter’s installation.
The women said they’re concerned that PSO would share private customer information with federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, law enforcement and with for-profit third parties. Wooster claims the installation of a data mining device, such as a Smart Meter, without the consent of the customer violates the Fourth Amendment and the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
American Civil Liberties Union chapters in Hawaii, Vermont and California have issued written statements requesting that customers’ privacy be protected, alleging that Smart Meters expose details about a customer’s private life including whether they are home or away, sleep and work habits and any use of specialized medical devices in the home.
Smart Meters have come under close scrutiny and in some cases have proven to be ineffective. In January 2014, Northwest Utilities, New England’s largest utility system with almost 4 million customers, reported that Smart Meters are costly for consumers and other technologies are more cost effective.
Other problems with Smart Meters include overheating, which occurred 37 times during PSO’s pilot program in Owasso. Those types of malfunctions have occurred elsewhere, including Portland, Philadelphia and Lakeland, Fla. Canada’s SaskPower was forced to replace 105,000 meters due to fires and overheating at a cost of $47 million, reports show.
In at least two cases nationwide, lawsuits allege residents died because of malfunctioning Smart Meters.
To access all of the public files and documents in the PSO rate case, click here. The case number is PUD 201300217.
This story was first published this day by Red Dirt Report and it is published on Tulsa Today with permission. (Yes, they are “progressive” and we are “conservative,” but we both like honest, aggressive, and fearless public debate.) Your comments welcome below.