Friday, March 26, 2010

Three Dollars and Twenty-Four Cents Per Month of Stupid

We returned home late Thursday afternoon to discover that CenterPoint Energy, the self-described "electric delivery company" that endeared itself to so many Houstonians in the wake of Hurricane Ike, had finally installed one of those "smart meters" on our electric box. We were vaguely aware that the smart meter was out there and possibly headed our way, but we had not paid much attention to the particulars––that is, the fine print––of their impending placement, other than the odiferous fact that we had already been paying for the thing through an "advanced meter surcharge" tucked into the line items on our monthly bill.

It just so happened that much earlier that day we had read a story in the Houston Chronicle by Purva Patel reporting that information on customers' power usage available from a Web site CenterPoint unveiled with much fanfare was, as the faintly clever headline phrased it, "not so current." According to Patel, CenterPoint initially claimed that "the site would give consumers with smart meters information about their power usage in 15-minute intervals so they could make better choices about how much power they use." Turns out, though the "15-minute incremental information can take as long as 48 hours to hit the Web site," although a CenterPoint mouthpiece promised that "eventually" electricity users (and abusers, presumably) will be able to access "real-time electric consumption information directly from their smart meters using in-home monitors."

So right now, for instance, say it's Tuesday afternoon in mid-summer and you've got the thermostat set to 65 and the A/C cranked, all the lamps and overhead lights are on 'cause you're finishing Madame Bovary while watching that 70-inch flat-screen plasma TV and straightening your curly locks with a CHI Flat Iron, and the kids are upstairs "sexting" or whatever it is they do from their PCs ... but you'll have to wait until Thursday to find out from the CenterPoint Web site that YOU'RE A MORON WHO'S USING TOO DAMN MUCH ELECTRICITY.

We've had our own "smart meter" for years, and it's the voice in our head that sounds very much like our old man, who used to get extremely agitated if we'd stand too long in front of what he quaintly called the "icebox" with the door open while we contemplated the bountiful late-20th century selection of foodstuffs therein, which would invariably result in a brief lecture on how much electricity we were wasting due to the fact that we were an irremediable dumbass (or so we inferred). This happened approximately a million times, not including the many similar lectures that attended our waiting too long to get in the shower or our accidentally forgetting to turn off a sole light in our room, etc. We used to write this off to the fact that he grew up in a series of "labor camps" next to the lignite mines of East Texas, where electrical service was intermittent, when available, and indoor plumbing non-existent, but after having children we found our self channeling the old boy's very voice when we'd pleadingly ask our kids why, upon leaving the house, they had to leave on EVERY FRICKIN' LIGHT or why they had to let the shower "warm up" for a full 5 minutes before climbing in, etc.

It was in that spirit that we perused the door hanger that CenterPoint left touting the swell new "energy future" the smart meter is ushering in. Among the supposed benefits are "remote meter reading ... virtually eliminating the need to come to your house to read the meter" [as well as the jobs of the guys who used to do that, it apparently goes without saying], "energy efficiency and savings" by allowing consumers to "see your electric usage history* to better manage your energy costs by making small changes such as adjusting your thermostat" [can't they just do that by remote-control from headquarters?], "environmental benefits" resulting from more efficient consumer management of electric usage, and, of course, the always looming "new products and services" peddled by customers' retail electric providers, that is, the companies that actually bill you for the juice (REPs––got it?). Now we're definitely all for saving our nickels and dimes and helping to throttle back on electricity production, at least that generated by burning coal, but the only alleged benefit that really impressed us was the promised "automatic outage notification" of CenterPoint when our electricity is on the blink, and that's because anyone who's tried to call and report an outage knows what an infuriating, nerve-mangling time suck that can turn out to be.

We had to open up the foldable door-hanger to get to what we were looking for, the very last section, which CenterPoint had thoughtfully headlined "What will this cost me?" (¿Cuanto me costarĂ¡ este servicio?) Answer: $3.24 per month for two years starting in February 2009 (a full year before we got our digital doo-hickey) and $3.05 per month for an unspecified "thereafter." The curious and the pissed-off were instructed to call their REPs to learn more. We called ours, which does business under the handle of TXU, and a nice lady told us that this smart-meter charge, which of course is a pass-along from CenterPoint, would be costing the specified amount(s) for 10 years, meaning we'll be able to draw on our Social Security to pay off our smart meter. We later calculated the cost to be in the vicinity of $375 or so, for something we'll probably never use but apparently had no choice but to accept. We told the TXU lady that we didn't really need a smart meter and in fact were already missing our old dumb meter, whose spinning gauges it took us several years to learn to read in the correct order. She replied with some canned ham regarding the savings the smart meter will help us realize, which we politely interrupted to ask, "So have y'all been getting a lot of angry calls about this?" The nice lady hesitated––wary, perhaps, that we might be, say, Purva Patel––then replied with an emphatic "Yes." Seeking further confirmation, we asked again, "So lots of people are mad about this? "Uh ... yes," she replied, again without elaboration but with the clear implication that she was damn well tired of hearing from 'em. Well, said we politely, put us down as another PO'ed smart-meter owner-leasee.

And this was before we learned of today's announcement that CenterPoint Houston has reached agreement with the DOE to receive $200 million in stimulus money for its "advanced metering system and intelligent grid projects." So, we're thinking now, can we get the $3.24 back, or at least the amount we paid before our meter got so smart?

*"HPH007," a commentator on the above-mentioned Chronicle story, handily dismissed that supposed benefit: "What am I going to learn? I already know that I use more electrical energy during the summer when I run my air conditioner and that I use more electricity at night when I have lights on. I use less during the winter when I do not run my ac and I use less in the middle of the night when I am asleep and all the lights are off. I do not need a smart meter to tell me that. I have been managing my energy consumption quit nicely on my own for almost 40 years, thank you."


JC said...

It was pitched as a cost cutting measure, too - no more expensive meter readers!
Lying SOBs.

Anonymous said...

Graph four is pure gold, sir.

The Fishing Musician said...

Just another way to gather more data at our expense.

Anonymous said...

One meter reader does both electricity and gas, so you'll still get a monthly visit from them for the gas reading, unless they replace that one too.

Just another corporate boondoggle.

I thought Centerpoint was hurting due to the Ike recovery costs? Yet they can afford to invest in these meters?

Kinda like they can afford to continuosly pay all those contractors to trim trees (we get yearly visits now), yet it would cost too much to bury the powerlines?

Marilynn said...

Magnificent post. I really enjoy your "dry" way of presenting all this.

And, yes, the 4th paragraph is magnificent -- reminds me of my parents and grandparents -- and now, me!

How perfect!

Nan said...

I chuckled the whole way through. And, like you, I channel my parents every time I go in a room at home nobody's using and the lights are on.