Costa Mesa and Newport Beach homeowners are seeing fractional increases in their monthly energy bills to pay for the new Smart electric meters, but most say it's a small price to pay for energy efficiency.
The $1.6 billion SmartConnect program was implemented by Southern California Edison earlier this year. Workers have been installing the new electric meters not only in Newport-Mesa, but throughout Orange and Los Angeles counties.
The goal is to have five million new Smart meters, which have the capacity to be read wirelessly and provide hourly data, installed in homes and small businesses throughout SCE's 50,000-square-mile territory.
The customer-funded program was approved by the California Public Utilities Commission. Edison estimates that the program cost roughly translates to a 1.6% increase in monthly utility bills through 2012, said SCE spokesman Charlie Cole.
Although in favor of the new meters, Newport Beach City Councilwoman Nancy Gardner expressed some concern over the added cost to individual electricity bills.
"Some times things just don't work out as hoped," Gardner said of the program that aims to reduce energy waste by 1,000 megawatts, the average amount produced by one power plant. "It's the largest houses with the most toys which can afford the energy and then create the largest bills. Someone on a strict budget (who) already manages their energy use might be more deeply affected by even a small increase."
Edison projects that customers can offset the cost and save upwards of 5% by taking advantage of the programs soon available in conjunction with the Smart meters, Cole said.
These programs will include options like hourly pricing and online access for customers to check daily energy usage, a practice similar to checking an online banking account.
While an hourly-pricing program already exists, it has not always been the convenient choice for customers because it involved a costly update to their meter, said Larry Oliva, director of Tariff Programs and Services.
However, once the new meters are installed, the switch to the hourly pricing program would be simple, SCE officials said.
This option will begin to be available to customers by the end of this year, Cole said, and remain "voluntary for the foreseeable future."
Under the current tiered pricing system, meters measure energy use in the same manner a car odometer records miles, Olivia said, so the more electricity a customer uses, the more that person pays.
"Depending on your set energy rate, at the end of the month the highest users in tier five might pay three times as much as those in tier one," Oliva said.
Costa Mesa and Newport Beach began seeing the meters in late May and June, and by now most homes have one.
Costa Mesa City Councilman Eric Bever received his first electricity statement since receiving the new meter on Tuesday and didn't see any difference in the costs.
"The Smart meter gives us a good opportunity to be more energy-efficient," he said, adding that when the hourly pricing option begins, "Some people might say it's horrible, but ultimately it will be rewarding for people who make good use of it."
In near future, the Smart meters will be compatible with other "smart" home devices, such as thermostats and refrigerators that will be developed by independent manufacturers, Cole said.
As with most new technology, these "talking" devices bring a certain amount of trepidation.
Cole said all customer data recorded by Smart meters and the corresponding SmartConnect programs will remain secure, the same as any private information that the company has collected in the past.