The smart meter battle rages on, and surprise actions by consumer advocates demanding tariff equity and the entrance of yet another utility monopoly into the escalating controversy have taken center stage — along a ruling that forced the release of confidential Southern California Edison financial documents and reports.

The Tobin Law Group has filed a protest of SCE’s Advice Letter. The CPUC filing calls for suspension of SCE smart meter opt-out fees — at the request of the Consumers Power Alliance, a statewide consumer rights coalition headquartered in Santa Barbara.

The legal activity comes close on the heels of Southern California Gas Company’s application on May 11 to offer opt-outs to its residential customers. SCG’s proposal replicates the opt-out plans and fees previously approved by the California Public Utilities Commission for the three other investor owned utilities (IOUs) over which they have jurisdiction under the state constitution: San Diego Gas & Electric, Pacific Gas & Electric and SCE.

The Consumers Power Alliance alleges that the SCE and proposed SCG fees are discriminatory and unjust, because customers of PG&E and SDG&E get both gas and electric opt-outs for one fee, whereas SCE customers would have to pay SCG a fee as well — making their opt-out fees double. The motion asserts that this flies in the face of CPUC policies of uniformity and protection of consumers.

The CPA’s filing is a protest of SCE’s Tier 1 Advice Letter on May 4, required by the CPUC to establish procedures for the utility’s smart meter opt-out plan implementation. However, the coalition points out that the SCE “did not file tariff pages,” as ordered, ”but includes them merely as an attachment … [and]  … the analysis, calculations, or data in the advice letter contain material errors or omissions, [which], if implemented as filed, would be unjust ,unreasonable, or discriminatory.”

The motion goes on to say that “the purpose of CPA’s protest is to urge the commission to remove ambiguities in the advice letter in order to clarify proper implementation of the decision, make it workable and practical as it is actually applied by SCE to its customers, and create a more harmonious relationship between consumers and utility.”

The requests include consumer tariff-based rights such as online opt-outs, removal of vagueness about “likely” and actual meters, and clarification that monthly fees cover maintenance, repair and replacement of analogs if and when they fail. 

SCG’s proposal to offer a fee-based opt-out plan and deploy smart meters (which they dub “advanced meters”) was not known to the CPUC when it made its decision about the SCE and other opt-out fees. In fact, up until SCG’s application was submitted, many insiders believed that cost-benefit considerations might preclude the gas company’s participation, since its purported recoverable costs are limited to remote shut-offs and firing meter readers. 

On May 16, at the behest of the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, CPUC Judge Yip-Kikugawa issued a ruling authorizing release of confidential SCE reports and financial documents. They reveal, in part, that the smart meter program is not cost-beneficial and saddles the ratepayers with unsustainably higher bills, as the program’s costs multiply.

— Heather Bryden represents the Consumers Power Alliance.