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A few months ago I came home from work to a great surprise: CenterPoint Energy had put a hanger on our front door letting us know that a smart meter would be installed in the next few weeks. Sure enough, four days later we were new smart meter owners!

You may have noticed that since February of 2009, there has been a $3.24 charge on your CenterPoint Energy bill. This is a charge that will remain for 24 months, and then will decrease to $3.05 a month afterwards (with no actual end in sight as of the writing of this article, though I have read that the total cost will be over 12 years and will come to approximately $443 per household) in order to pay for the installation of over 2 million of these new smart meters throughout the Houston, TX area by mid 2012. Check out this link to see approximately when yours will be installed.

The second door hanger that announced our new meter had been installed touted some of the benefits of this new product: remote meter reading, smoother transactions, automatic outage notification, energy efficiency and savings. I was so excited knowing that somehow this new equipment was going to save us on electricity charges, and decided to call my retail electricity provider (REP) in order to find out how it was going to save us money. I envisioned a plan where electricity use at off-peak hours, like doing the laundry at 8:00 a.m. on Friday mornings (I work a compressed schedule, and am off on Fridays) would cost us less than the normal per kilowatt rate we are paying. But the answer I received—at least in the area of saving money on my electricity bill—was less than thrilling.

CenterPoint merely installs this equipment, but your individual REP is responsible for taking advantage of this new technology. So I called up both Mega Energy as well as Reliant Energy in order to get some answers. Aside from the new efficiencies, such as meter readings every 15 minutes which will significantly increase the accuracy of billing and will allow customers to see their bill as the month progresses, as well as the improvements cited above, this new technology is not going to immediately save consumers money.

Right now you can think of your new smart meter as a large kill-a-watt that can give you real time information about how many watts you are using so that you can adjust your behaviors, thus saving you money. In other words, your electricity savings come in the form of you checking your electricity usage as it is occurring, then turning off electronics. We all ready do this in our household because we own a kill-a-watt.

A new plan from Reliant Energy based off of this technology could actually end up costing consumers more money. Reliant rolled out the first time-of-use plans available to consumers with smart meters that charges different rates based on energy demand throughout the day. Under this new plan, for November through March you will be charged 13.6 cents per kilowatt from 6:00 – 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 – 9:00 p.m. and 11.8 cents per kilowatt between midnight – 6:00 a.m., 9:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m., and 9:00 p.m. – midnight. The 11.8 cents per kilowatt charge on off-peak hours is a welcome change in Reliant plans. However, during the summer month peak hours of 4:00 – 6:00 p.m., the price will be 15.8 cents per kilowatt. While in theory this is a great concept because it will force consumers to use energy at other times of the day, my overall rate plan with Mega Energy  is 11.0 cents per kilowatt right now, and I can use the electricity anytime I want to. Why would I switch to this time-of-use plan? There is no incentive to do so. In fact, Reliant’s new plan foreshadows higher electricity usage costs for consumers with their per kilowatt as a base to begin pricing, instead of the per kilowatt rate as a maximum and then a lower per kilowatt rate during off-demand usage.

It is nice to see that we are progressing into more precise technology when it comes to electricity meters, but I must admit that I am disappointed with the lack of new pricing plans from REPs. Hopefully they will come up with programs to entice consumers to curb their energy usage during peak hours and get rewarded for using electricity at other times of day, like turning their dishwasher on before going to sleep at night instead of during peak times. For now, I’ll be sticking with my 11.0 cents per kilowatt plan and enjoying my evening summertime energy use. I just wonder for how much longer?

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