Daily Press (Sunday)

Outer Banks homes being upgraded to smart meters

Dominion official says most will be installed by May

- By Corinne Saunders

Dominion Energy’s largescale project to upgrade its northeaste­rn North Carolina customers’ meters to “smart meters” is underway and is expected to be mostly complete by this spring.

“Our Outer Banks and Elizabeth City offices began deploying smart meters in July 2023, and the majority are scheduled to be completed by May 2024,” Cherise Newsome, a Dominion Energy spokespers­on for northeaste­rn North Carolina, said in an email.

“Smart meters are the industry standard metering technology,” and the Edison Foundation estimated that 75% of U.S. households had a smart meter by the end of 2020, she said.

As of Jan. 4, the Richmond-based utility had installed nearly 2.5 million smart meters in Virginia and North Carolina — a number representi­ng over 89% of its customers, according to Newsome.

She did not provide exact locations on the Outer Banks that already had the meters installed.

However, the town of Nags Head posted on its Facebook page Sept. 13 that town residents would receive smart meters beginning the week of Sept. 18, and the installati­ons would take just minutes.

Some residents of Kitty Hawk and lower Currituck County said their smart meters were installed in mid-November. Kill Devil Hills residents have reported installati­on dates ranging from late September to last week.

Some residents of Colington Island also received their smart meters this past week.

Smart meters communicat­e electronic­ally and result in better service to customers, according to Dominion Energy’s website.

Benefits include offering customers more informatio­n about and more control of their energy use; automatica­lly notifying Dominion Energy when residents lose power; and reading meters remotely, which reduces neighborho­od utility truck traffic, according to Newsome.

“Prior to smart meters, meter readings were collected via a specially equipped vehicle which would drive through a neighborho­od monthly, communicat­ing via radio signals with meters to obtain readings,” she explained.

Customers can opt out of the smart meters for a “non-communicat­ing digital meter,” according to Dominion Energy’s website, but the company reserves the right to propose a charge for manually reading these meters.

The company doesn’t track customer opt-outs by county. To date, fewer than 3,700 customers across Virginia and North Carolina have opted out, which represents about 0.15% of customers, according to Newsome.

Smart meters comply with Federal Communicat­ions Commission guidelines and are not on all the time, typically transmitti­ng for less than 5% of the day, according to an online Dominion Energy fact sheet about smart meters.

Smart meters’ radiofrequ­ency radiation levels are “more than 30,000 times lower than ‘always on’ technology like your smartphone” and “no evidence of health impacts or concerns” have been found through public health and the scientific community’s testing of smart meters, the fact sheet said.

At least 10 days before meters are replaced, customers receive a postcard in the mail, and a certified profession­al will place a door hanger at homes or businesses after the new meter’s installati­on, Newsome said.

“Aclara Smart Grid Solutions is our contractor, and they have third-party contractor­s working for them as well,” she said.

“Customers should not notice any change to their monthly bill as a result of this new technology,” Dominion Energy’s website says.

But on the Outer Banks, as the installati­on process has unfolded, a few residents have posted on social media that they have received much higher bills.

Gretchen Grosklos Dibler of Kitty Hawk wasn’t sure when her smart meter was installed but said that she received a bill of over $900 for a three-month period.

That was triple the cost and nearly triple the typical kilowatt-hour usage for the past 10 years for her slightly over-2,000-square-foot home, she said. She has not yet successful­ly contacted Dominion Energy about the issue.

“I have been on hold with them for hours … then get hung up on,” Grosklos Dibler said. “I hope that I will eventually get an answer.”

Other residents noticed a significan­tly higher fuel charge, which in some cases predated local smart meter installati­ons.

Beth Ann Coyle of Powells Point said she keeps detailed records of all her electric bills and had one “crazy high bill” of $350 in August 2023 — well before her smart meter installati­on on Nov. 19 or 20 — for reasons unclear to her.

She also noticed that bill’s fuel charge of $49.06 was much higher than the $3.81 fuel charge of August 2022.

“That’s a problem,” Coyle opined. “That’s part of the reason people’s bills are crazy, and I don’t think they should have been allowed to make a jump like that.”

Natalie Smith of Kitty Hawk said her smart meter was installed Nov. 13, 2023.

After reading social media comments about people receiving higher bills, “I looked at my bill very carefully,” she said in a message.

She found that her December bill showed “almost identical usage to the prior year. The bill was about $40 higher due to a fuel surcharge.”

Newsome confirmed that the company’s fuel charge is not related to smart meters. She said it fluctuates with market rates and the company does not profit from it.

“The fuel charge is simply the cost of the fuel we purchase for our power plants, as well as the cost of the electricit­y we purchase from other power plants to serve our customers,” she said.

Because of the global price of natural gas, the fuel charge increased twice in 2023, she said. “It went up by about $12 a month in February and then by about $11 in August.”

Largely, the bill is simply due to how much energy is used, she maintained.

Customers typically see higher bills in the summer and winter months because heating, ventilatio­n and air conditioni­ng “accounts for more than half of the electricit­y you use,” Newsome said.

“We understand seasonal fluctuatio­ns can be a challenge for some customers,” she added. “Our budget billing program helps our customers avoid the seasonal fluctuatio­ns by paying a flat monthly charge based on their average electricit­y use over the last 12 months. Customers may sign in to their account online to see if they qualify.”

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