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Archive for July, 2010

Dallas-based power line operator Oncor has set up a hotline to answer customer questions at 1-888-875-6279 or online at http://www.askoncor.com.

“We expect to get questions on everything from ‘How do I switch retailers?’ to ‘What is a kilowatt?’ and everything in between,” Oncor chief customer officer Brenda Jackson said.

“As we’ve heard multiple times since the smart meter questions began and the February snowstorm, customers need and want someone to turn to. Before we began stepping up, there wasn’t really anyone serving them.”

Oncor spokeswoman Megan Wright said operating the hotline probably won’t cost much, because Oncor already employs the customer service agents and experts who will answer the questions. She said if the program becomes costly, Oncor would probably ask regulators to include the cost in the rates electricity customers pay each month.

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After testing thousands of digital meters and reviewing hundreds of thousands of records, Oncor says it has found fewer than 25 defective smart meters.
That’s 25 out of 1.1 million smart meters that the regulated power line operator has installed in Texas. None of the defective meters were in Oak Cliff, Temple or Killeen – areas where customers have complained that the meters caused bills to spike.
“It’s a really nice outcome,” said Oncor chief executive Bob Shapard.
Last winter, customers complained that their electricity bills rose as soon as Oncor installed the new meters. The concerns prompted the Public Utility Commission to hire a consultant to test whether the meters and back-office equipment worked properly.
Oncor officials have said many bills rose during the winter because it was unusually cold. Electric heaters had to work harder to keep homes comfortable.
Shapard knows that response irritates people.
“It doesn’t satisfy customers to say, ‘Well, it wasn’t the meter,’ ” he said.
People want to find out why their bills rose, he said. That’s why Oncor set up a hotline to answer customer questions about electricity, at 1-888-875-6279 or http://www.askoncor.com.
The Public Utility Commission instructed utilities to exchange old, mechanical meters for new digital meters.
The new meters, sometimes called smart meters, will allow the utility to turn power on and off remotely and fix outages more quickly. The meters can also allow customers to see how much electricity they use each day, rather than wait for a bill.
Oncor has installed around 1.1 million smart meters, on its way to 3.4 million by the end of 2012. The PUC is allowing Oncor to charge customers $2.21 a month for 11 years to pay for the meters.
Shapard sent a letter on Thursday to the Public Utility Commission with the results of Oncor’s tests.
Oncor tested more than 7,300 smart meters at the request of customers. The company hired by the PUC to test meters, Navigant Consulting, tested 2,600.
Navigant found one meter that incorrectly registered higher readings, Shapard said. So Oncor tested similar meters and found around 25 with the same defect. The meter vendor paid to fix the problem, and Oncor provided electricity retailers with corrected billing information.
Shapard said those customers had paid, on average, about $100 too much for electricity.
The letter also says Oncor reviewed the records of about 780,000 customers and found human errors in about 1,800 cases. In some cases, the Oncor worker who replaced the meter read the old meter incorrectly. Shapard said Oncor corrected those errors.
Shapard said Oncor found no problems with back-office or software systems. He said Navigant hadn’t informed him of any such problems, either.
PUC spokesman Terry Hadley said Navigant probably would present its findings at the next PUC meeting, July 30. Once the commissioners have discussed the results, they will probably release the report to the public, he said.
Some retail electric providers, who compete for customers’ business, agree that the meter doesn’t tend to be the problem.
“We’re able to look at just the usage, and we’re not able to see anything in our usage data that would suggest a bias between groups that have and don’t have a smart meter,” said TXU Energy spokesman Brian Tulloh.
So what’s causing bills to rise? Shapard said most of the time, people need to shop for lower electricity rates, insulate their homes or upgrade to more efficient appliances.
“That’s 95 percent of the high bill problems in the business,” he said.

By ELIZABETH SOUDER / The Dallas Morning News
esouder@dallasnews.com

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New thermostat system lets you have your favorite temperature and pay less for it, too

A California company, in partnership with Oncor, will launch a new service in North Texas Wednesday to cut home energy use as much as 15 percent without changing the home’s temperature.
For $19.95, EcoFactor will install a thermostat in your home. You control the temperature, and the company manipulates the way your air conditioner and heater reach that temperature to cut energy use.
EcoFactor founders say they can reduce the average household utility costs by $300 to $400 a year.
“We consider ourselves like the cruise control on your car,” said EcoFactor chief executive John Steinberg.
The service achieves what many electricity industry officials had hoped to do with smart meters. But Steinberg can do it with or without the new, digital meters that utilities are installing throughout the state.
The company’s thermostat monitors the difference between indoor and outdoor temperature and remembers how cool a user wants the home to be throughout the day.
The company uses information collected by the thermostat to cycle the heating and cooling system. The system finds the most efficient means to keep the home at the customer’s favorite temperature.
The $19.95 price includes six months of free service. After that, the service costs $8.99 a month.
Steinberg said he can keep the price low because of a deal with Oncor, which operates electricity lines in North Texas.
Oncor operates a so-called “demand response” program. When electricity demand hits dangerous levels on hot summer days, Oncor calls on people in the program to cut their usage. Those people, typically large industrial companies, can get a discount on their utility bills.
EcoFactor has a three-year contract to deliver 3,000 kilowatt hours of electricity savings to Oncor, said Oncor spokeswoman Jeamy Molina.
If EcoFactor meets that goal, Oncor will pay $240 for each kilowatt hour saved, she said.

08:09 AM CDT on Wednesday, July 7, 2010
By ELIZABETH SOUDER / The Dallas Morning News
esouder@dallasnews.com

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