published Saturday, August 25th, 2012

Cleveland Utilities offers opt-out plan for smart meters

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Cleveland Utilities customers will not be forced into having their power usage monitored by automated meter reading technology, commonly called "smart meters."

The utilities board voted 5-0 on Thursday to allow customers to participate in an opt-out plan for a proposed $10 monthly charge. The plan goes into effect on Nov. 1.

"We're one of the first utilities in the [Tennessee] Valley to offer an opt-out program," said Tom Wheeler, president and CEO of Cleveland Utilities.

The fee will help cover the cost of sending out a utility worker to manually log a home's electricity usage, said Wheeler. Opt-out customers will be able to switch over to smart meter usage whenever they like.

Wheeler said the proposed plan was approved by the Tennessee Valley Authority's retail regulatory affairs department.

Cleveland Utilities is approaching the final phases of installing smart meters for its 30,000 power customers, said Bart Borden, vice president of the electric division.

Only 4,000 meters need to be installed as of early August. So far, only 42 customers have said they don't want the new technology, said Walt Vineyard, vice president of information technologies for CU.

Customers oppose the smart readers for a variety of reasons, said Vineyard. Some have health concerns regarding the wireless transmission of data, while others cite privacy issues or fear Cleveland Utilities will be able to control their household appliances.

Smart meter technology is safe and secure, said utility officials.

"I believe people will be more comfortable with the technology the more it is used," said Wheeler. "We may see those opt-out customer numbers go down in time."

In other business, Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland swore in board member Eddie Cartwright for a second four-year term on the board.

And Chief Financial Officer Ken Webb said that while CU's financial health appeared good for the last fiscal year, one community service initiative has caused some concern.

Project Help, a 30-year-old program that accepts donations from utility customers to help the needy pay their electric bills, has been losing support, Webb said.

Currently 500 donors contribute to Project Help, compared to a peak of 1,000. Monthly contributions have fallen from almost $1,300 to about $800, he said.

The Caring Place in Cleveland administers Project Help and disburses funding through its "Neighbors in Need" program.

"We want to do a better job of getting the word out about the program," said Webb. "A lot of folks have benefited from it over the years."

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