Note: The following story is a verbatim transcript of an Investigators story that aired on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2007, on KPRC Local 2 at 10 p.m.
All this week, Local 2 Investigates is uncovering changes coming to your electric bill.
Tonight, we look at a change CenterPoint Energy is calling the biggest since electricity was invented. The digital meter is coming to Houston and to your home in a matter of months, but are problems and confusion likely to come with them?
Tonight, investigative reporter Amy Davis investigates areas of Texas that have already switched to digital meters and say trouble may be coming to your electricity bill.
Come 2008, Houston meter readers will go the way of the old milkman. "Meter readers as we know them today will be greatly reduced in number," said CenterPoint Energy's Floyd LeBlanc. Instead, CenterPoint Energy is installing state-of-the-art digital meters. "This advanced meter will produce readings every 15 minutes," said LeBlanc.
The advanced meter will beam your reading right back to a CenterPoint office. It's the newest frontier in the way power companies read your meter, but Houston is not the first to get them. Debbie White and her husband Rick knew something was wrong when TXU Electrical Delivery installed a new digital meter on their 1,300-square-foot trailer in Lufkin. "It had done got to the point that it made me sick," Debbie White said. Their usual $140 electric bill immediately spiked. "We paid it and went on, you know," said Rick White. "Until the next month when it got to $600."
"They checked the meter," Debbie White said. "They couldn't find nothing or they said they couldn't find nothing." The next bill the Whites found in their mailbox was more than $800, and the Whites weren't alone. Dozens showed up at town hall meetings from the East Texas towns of Nacogdoches, Zavala, and Lufkin -- all with problems that popped up on their electric bills when TXU installed those new meters.
"There was no way to explain it other than some kind of shenanigan on the part of the utility companies," said David Guillory, a Lufkin attorney. "It's all been very good," said Chris Schein, a spokesperson for TXU Electrical Delivery. To hear TXU tell it, there never were any problems with the digital meters. "We feel very comfortable and very confident in the accuracy of the meters," Schein said. It was that same line repeated to the Whites and other East Texas families. "Pay it or they was going to cut it off," said Rick White. "And they cut it off." "Do I believe they (TXU) are arrogant?" asks Guillory. "I do. I believe that they are cocky in the way that only somebody who knows that you have no real choices can be."
Consumers in East Texas are suing TXU for breach of contract and violation of the Texas deceptive trade practices act. When Guillory filed the lawsuit at the Angelina County courthouse, TXU's first response was to ask the judge for a change of venue, but not to another court. TXU wanted the case heard before the Public Utility Commission.
"Apparently (TXU) are very comfortable there," Guillory said. "They know that they have a good chance of winning in front of the PUC. Well, we're not going to the PUC. We're going to be in front of a jury of East Texans." "We've been following that from a distance," said LeBlanc.
While CenterPoint is already testing 10,000 advanced meters in a Houston pilot program, it's keeping an eye on the case in East Texas. The company is still convinced Houstonians will come out ahead. "We believe it will be a tremendous cost saver over time," LeBlanc said.
However, consumer advocates want to know who will see that cost savings. We've learned CenterPoint plans to charge all of its nearly 2 million residential customers a $2.50 monthly fee for 12 years -- all while the electric company is saving money by laying off meter readers. Davis asked, "At what point is CenterPoint agreeing to eat any of the cost of doing business? You're not a public entity."
"We are a regulated private business," said LeBlanc. "Every charge that we pass onto a consumer or over to a retail electric provider is a reviewed and I might add contested in an open PUC proceeding."
TXU said it tested its meters and found no malfunctions. Instead, the company says a cold winter that coincided with the installation of the new meters can explain the high bills. Local 2 Investigates will stay on top of this lawsuit and let you know what happens.
Here in Houston, CenterPoint will start rolling out the advanced meters in the middle of 2008. It's estimated to take five years to switch over the entire Houston area. Do you have a question about your electricity bill?
All week, Local 2 Investigates is taking your calls and emails about electricity issues. Later this week, we'll answer some of those questions on our newscasts.