by David Sheldon
June 29th, 2012 –The Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) issued its staff report on its “investigation” of the smart meter controversy. The important point to understand is that this “investigation”, spanning 5-1/2 months, was no investigation at all. It was a “Cover Thy …” process designed to justify policies the agency had put into effect years earlier. The process was initiated in response to pleas from 9 city governments and to placate citizens, give citizens an opportunity to vent their rage, and utility corporations an opportunity to get their corporate PR on record. It was clear from the beginning that this process was never seriously intended to question the ongoing forced replacement of 2 million electric meters.
Most of the 9 original cities had called for at least a temporary halt to meter installations until a proper investigation could be completed into the health and privacy issues. The MPSC ignored all such requests and permitted one utility, Detroit Edison, to proceed at breakneck speed to install the controversial meters. The agency also made no provision for any contested hearings on the controversy – where experts on both side might have been called to testify under oath. Even now that the list of local governments calling for caution has grown to 22, the agency is not ready to seriously question its own past decisions.
There was a wealth of credible information made available to the MPSC concerning both immediate damage to the health of vulnerable persons and long term damage to the health of the entire population. The agency staff ignored all of it and concluded that health concerns were “insignificant”. They rely for this conclusion on reports prepared mostly by either the federal Department of Energy, which is the federal agency whose mission it is to promote smart meters, or on reports prepared by industry sources that clearly stand to profit by defending the program.
There was substantial evidence and unimpeachable arguments about how the meters violated people’s Fourth Amendment privacy rights. The MPSC did not even address this technical evidence or the Constitutional issue of whether homeowners can be required to tolerate the surveillance these meters provide, or the possible sale of people’s private information to third parties.
The Attorney General of our state had, along with ABATE, sued the MPSC alleging that a decision two years earlier to allow Detroit Edison to charge back smart meter costs to its customers was fundamentally flawed, as no cost/benefit analysis had been done. The Michigan Court of Appeals had agreed the decision was flawed and ordered MPSC to conduct such a cost/benefit analysis. Yet we see no mention of such an analysis in the report or even an indication that such work has begun or been scheduled to begin. We are still in a situation where the benefits to customers of the new technology are entirely speculative, where the benefits to the utilities are very real and can be quantified.
The Attorney General has also stated his opinion that customers choosing to opt out of smart meters have already been paying for the new system through their monthly electric bills, and that it would be unjust for them to be charged again for choosing not to participate in that system. Yet the Commission staff has (again) not chosen to address that point, instead parroting the demand of utilities that such customers be penalized, where the amount of such penalties has not even been announced yet and apparently will be at whatever level the utilities choose – now and in the future.
Staff has also chosen not to address the question of what kind of meter would be available to people choosing to opt-out of a smart meter. Apparently they are waiting for the industry to tell them what kind of meter. We know the industry only wishes to offer an electronic digital meter with full surveillance capabilities, but with radio transmitters not included or disabled. Everyone who has seriously looked at this question, outside of the industry itself, finds such a substitute unacceptable. The demand of the people has always been that they be allowed to keep their mechanical analog meters. There has been no showing that any other kind of meter would address either the privacy issue or the health issues. Instead of addressing this issue, the staff chooses to parrot the silly propaganda of the utilities that such meters are “obsolete” or that they are “no longer manufactured”. There is something very circular and self-serving about this argument since whether they continue to be manufactured depends entirely on whether regulators require that utilities continue to make them available.
The staff people who wrote this report are paid by the people of this state to protect them from what otherwise might be abuses of the monopoly utility industry. They have a sacred public trust. In this report we have seen a breach of that trust.
It seems inevitable that the Commission will adopt the recommendations of its own staff and will soon issue an Order providing for opt outs with penalties, though they will probably stay true to form and wait for the utilities to tell them how high the penalties must be. When the utilities tell the Commission to ‘jump’ the Commission can only ask ‘how high?’
One of the ways of overcoming the deficits of this anticipated Commission Order is for us to continue to press for passage of either the McMillin bill or the Opsommer bill. Both bills were languishing in the House Energy Committee for about three months and now the legislature is on vacation until fall. While we won’t see any remedy soon, these bills do provide a sound long term solution to the smart meter issues. They address all the issues the staff report ducked!
We believe that we got to this point because there is a revolving door between the industry and the agency that regulates it. Regulatory agencies typically look to the industry when they want to hire staff people with the necessary expertise. Often staffers return to the industry after they complete their term of government service. These facts lead to a far too cozy relationship between regulators and regulated.
It is for us, the people of the State of Michigan, to decide if we are willing to accept this level of service from the people we pay to protect us. Perhaps it is time for us to consider establishing a different utility regulatory structure – staffers not drawn from the regulated industry, and a Commission whose members are not appointed by the Governor, but directly elected by the people.
Until that day comes, we must deal with the immediate problem. We will be looking to find at least ten brave souls who will agree to be co-plaintiffs in a legal action to reverse the Commission’s policy on opt-out penalties, to assure that the analog meter will be available as an opt-out choice, and to argue for the right of whole communities to opt-out, so that there be safe havens for the most vulnerable among us.
To read the actual Commission staff report, click here.