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It is the job of the People’s Counsel to act as a utility watchdog on behalf of District residents. As Pepco begins installing SmartMeters in District homes this month, we hear why DC’s official consumer advocate says rolling out a SmartMeter right now isn’t very smart.
- Brenda Pennington Attorney; and Interim People’s Counsel for The District of Columbia
MR. KOJO NNAMDIYou may not know a lot about the Office of the People's Counsel, but you see what that office does each month when you open your bills. Since our utilities -- gas, electric and water -- are monopolies or near monopolies, the People's Counsel is the one who is supposed to fight to keep rates down. When a water main breaks or power lines go down, the People's Counsel is expected to demand better service for consumers and recently told the power company that maybe smart meters aren't so smart, at least not until more consumers are educated about them. The People's Counsel pushes for broadband access in places where the telecom companies are slow to bring service. And the interim director of the Office of People's Counsel joins us now. She is Brenda Pennington. Brenda Pennington, thank you for joining us.
MS. BRENDA PENNINGTONAnd thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here today.
NNAMDIFor those unfamiliar with the Office of People's Counsel -- I gave a brief description, but you can go on a greater length. What exactly do you do?
PENNINGTONActually, we are the consumer advocate for utility customers in the District of Columbia. We represent consumers of utility services of Pepco, Washington Gas and Verizon as a whole before the Public Service Commission, before the FCC and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, as well as courts. And then we also represent consumers individually in consumer complaints when they call our office and largely complain against one of the three utility companies.
NNAMDIYou've been on both sides of this. You've been with the Office of People's Counsel since 2001, but you came from the telecom industry before going to the Office of People's Counsel. So you have seen this from, I guess, both sides of the street.
PENNINGTONYes, I have. Actually, I started my career at the Public Service Commission.
PENNINGTONSo I have been on all sides of...
NNAMDIOn all three sides.
PENNINGTONAnd I have to tell you that this is the side that I like the best. I get to advocate for a particular client, and that is the utility consumer. And while I got excellent experience in all of my other jobs and responsibilities, I have the fire in the belly for this job.
NNAMDIYou are the interim people's counsel. You replaced the legendary Elizabeth Noel as the people's counsel.
NNAMDIWhy interim? What's the process? You have been nominated by the mayor. Do you have to be approved by the city council in order to be the permanent people's counsel?
PENNINGTONYes. As -- there was a transition in our office, and in May, Mayor Fenty selected me to become the Interim People's Counsel. So at this point, what happened is that the mayor would then nominate me, and I would have my job interview before the city council and then be confirmed by the city council.
NNAMDIWell, she is interim, so if you'd like to call her now at 800-433-8850, if you have questions or comments about your utility bill or the service you get, now is the time to call, 800-433-8850. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and ask your question or make your comment there. Let's start with Pepco, Brenda Pennington.
PENNINGTONYes, let's do that.
NNAMDIPepco rolled out installation of 750 so-called SmartMeters this month. What are SmartMeters?
PENNINGTONWell, SmartMeter is actually going to change the relationship between the consumer and the utility company. Heretofore, the utility company has had all of the power and making the decisions with respect to the service that they provide.
PENNINGTONThe SmartMeter is supposed to be a two-way communication that will give the consumer greater control over their energy consumption. You see the rollout of SmartMeters across the country, so this is -- Pepco is inline with utility, electric -- the change in electric utility service that is happening across the country.
NNAMDIHow does this work, the SmartMeter?
PENNINGTONWell, the first step that is going to happen is that there has to be a meter exchange.
PENNINGTONThey have to take out the old meter that currently exist in order to put in the new meter. And part of what you were talking about earlier is that the Office of the People's Counsel filed a motion before the Public Service Commission who, as you know, is the regulatory authority that regulates the utility companies.
PENNINGTONAnd we filed our motion because we felt that consumers need to be educated about these very questions that you're asking. And we -- the issues that we wanted to highlight was really related to timing. Now, back -- as a result of a settlement agreement, the Office of the People's Counsel was instrumental in getting Pepco to do a pilot program of the SmartMeters. That pilot program was extremely successful. It has been recognized by the White House and has gotten other national awards. And in that pilot program, they laid out consumer education prior to the deployment of the meters. They educated consumers on how they can take control over their electricity consumption. And we felt as though that same process needed to happen with respect to the rollout across the city of these SmartMeters, and it hasn't happened. And our disagreement really has to do with timing, timing of customer and consumer education. One, so that consumers can understand what is this thing called the SmartMeter.
PENNINGTONWhy are we getting this? You know, it's a national mandate, a national rollout in the same way that DTV was a national rollout. And in digital television, I sat on an FCC board for about two years as we developed customer education guide, customer education out. And customers, you know, had to get the little coupon. And even with all of the information that had already been out in the community, the president decided that more needed to happen. And he actually delayed or called for the delay of the digital television.
NNAMDIBut the situation...
PENNINGTONAnd so that's what we were looking at with SmartMeters that consumers need to be educated.
NNAMDIBut what we have here now is that SmartMeters have already been rolled out, installed in Chevy Chase, and some people, apparently, may not know exactly how they work. They are supposed to help us to reduce electricity usage during designated hours when wholesale electricity prices are high. Frankly, I know nothing about that.
NNAMDIAnd if they were to install SmartMeter at my house tomorrow, I would still know nothing about that.
PENNINGTONExactly. And that's what we were talking about with customer education because in the first phase, it's going to be a rollout of the actual meter -- what I've termed as the meter exchange. They exchange from your old meter to this new SmartMeter, but the technology and the benefits that are to come from SmartMeters will not be realized for another two years, even according to Pepco's own schedule. So that is part of the education that consumers need to know about. They not -- they also need to know about the steps, the actual process of the meter exchange. Well, they had sent out letters, which we think is just notification and not adequate consumer education. They've sent out letters to people alerting them that a Pepco contractor will come around, and they've identified who the contractor is and identified the type of van that they will have. But we felt as though more needed to happen.
PENNINGTONNow, OPC, in conjunction with Pepco, will be holding the first SmartMeter education forum this coming Thursday, Oct. 14, at the Sumner School, which is located at 1701 M Street Northwest. We will begin at 6:30 p.m., and it's about a two-hour long program. Pepco will be there to talk about the meter installation process, the impact that the SmartMeters are -- may have on customer bills, the features of the meters and also the timing of these benefits that consumers, purportedly, will be able to realize. We...
NNAMDIIf you already have a SmartMeter installed at your home and are confused about it, you probably want to attend that seminar. But you can tell us your feelings by calling us at 800-433-8850. It seems obvious that some customers are confused about how the SmartMeters work because if one were installed at my house tomorrow, I would expect to start seeing reduced bills a week, a month, a year from now. But it's my understanding that smart -- can someone with a SmartMeter end up with higher electricity bills with SmartMeters than they had before? And you said it'll take as long as two years for us to see the effects of that.
PENNINGTONYes. And the two-year period is really when we are being told that you'll be able to see the benefits of having actual more control. You know, with the SmartMeter, it also has to be used in conjunction with a smart thermometer. And Pepco has not indicated, you know, when and how it's going to deploy or make available the smart thermometers. So in addition to that, they also need to be mindful of getting information to consumers regarding these benefits that they'll be able to realize. But OPC is going to be there to let people know also of the challenges, the new challenges that will be brought on by the installation of the SmartMeter. Now, Pepco will have the ability to do remote termination. While the company tries to couch that in terms of the benefits...
NNAMDINobody has to come to my house to cut my power off. That's a great benefit to me. Yeah...
PENNINGTONRight, exactly. They also say that on the flipside of that, that it'll also be much shorter when they do reconnect you. So -- but these are issues that consumers need to know about, and they need to be addressed by the company, who's actually Pepco, who's actually doing the meter exchange and doing the deployment of the SmartMeters.
NNAMDIWhenever you hear Brenda Pennington refer to OPC, I know what it means because, well, I'm down with OPC. But it means Office of People's Counsel. Here is Muriel in Washington, D.C. Muriel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MURIELThank you, Kojo. I'd like to know who's -- which -- how much the customers are going to have to pay Pepco for doing all of this work that they may or may not get to, and to what degrees will they remain in power without even cutting people's power off from remote termination for the site. For example, since they have, over the past years, had an arrangement with the District to even be able to walk away from their, you know, culpability when they have, for example, had a wire that was under service and still cause a problem in someone's home, but that home suddenly gets a raise in their insurance rate because the District has approved it. Pepco have huge amounts of power. And I don't believe that they're going to let any of us do anything but pay them dearly for getting new power.
NNAMDIMuriel, as you can see, is clearly not a big fan of Pepco. Brenda Pennington.
PENNINGTONYes. And, Muriel, I'd like to say that OPC shares your concerns 100 percent. When you were talking about how much is this going to cost, that was one -- that's our question. We want -- we not only want Pepco to come forward, we've asked the Public Service Commission to require them not only to come forward with an educational plan to do a rollout of a plan, but also to do a rollout of a budget. Because while they have gotten money from the federal government through the American Reinvestment and Recovery fund, the -- that -- the amount of money that they received was $44.6 million. We don't know if that is going to be the extent of, you know, the cost.
PENNINGTONAnd so whatever cost overruns happen, they're going to get that from the ratepayer. And so we're asking them to come forward with a budget so that we can evaluate that and make certain that extra -- extraordinary costs are not borne by the ratepayer. And you're absolutely right, that they are in control of the electric distribution system in D.C. And even on a blue sky day, you can lose power. Interestingly enough, while I was preparing to come to the show, we almost lost power this afternoon. And today is what they call a blue sky day, where there's no precipitation, no inclement weather, and you still -- the power -- the service that we receive from them is still not reliable. They have a...
NNAMDIThis is the service of the Office of People's Counsel that was -- that you said was threatened today?
PENNINGTONNo. This is service at my home.
NNAMDIOh, okay. Pepco obviously has your address, but that's another story. We're talking with Brenda Pennington. She is the interim director of the Office of People's Counsel of the District of Columbia. Muriel, thank you for your call. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. The reliability of electric power in the District is another issue. Many of us experienced power outages during the storms this past winter and summer. There was a hearing recently. Can you talk a little bit about some of the issues that came up at that hearing?
PENNINGTONYes. We talked about reliability. And this was the second in a series of hearings that Muriel Bowser, who is the chair of our oversight committee, has put on. And the first time that we engaged in the conversation was in July -- July 14, right before another major power outage. And the reason that -- there was a roundtable discussion because they -- consumers had suffered power outages during heat waves, as well as during inclement weather. And we recently testified, again, regarding reliability, Pepco's vegetation and management plan, the trees. They -- Pepco continues to say that it's the trees, it's the trees, and that there are different federal agencies, District agencies, as well as Pepco, that are involved in this process. But what we're really looking for them to do since they have the statutory obligation is to take leadership and to take charge in this area, to do what is necessary so that consumers have -- that they are providing safe and adequate service to utility consumers.
NNAMDIHere is Ted in Washington, D.C. Ted, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TEDHi. Good afternoon. I run a small business in Adams Morgan on 18th Street, bought a restaurant in the 2300 block, and we were -- this summer we got one in a really bad heat. We lost our (word?) certainly it wasn't trees. There are no trees on 18th Street that cut the power lines underground. And they came and replaced it on Friday night, and then it went out again early on a Saturday. As you can imagine being from Washington, Adams Morgan is -- Friday and Saturday nights are important source of revenue for our businesses...
NNAMDISo you lost a lot of business and a lot of revenue?
TEDExactly. And we were busy both nights. We had private events. And we had no way -- you know, I did speak with Councilmember Graham, who was supportive, but he didn't really -- he couldn't provide me with much. Well, he said he'd testify at a hearing as you mentioned. But just was wondering if you could share any light on the complaint process, and if you have any suggestions for businesses that are in a similar position as mine and how to deal with these situations in the future.
NNAMDITed's business is in Ward 1, so when he refers to Councilmember Graham, he's referring to the Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. Here, now, is Brenda Pennington.
PENNINGTONYes. And Mr. Graham has taken a particular interest -- Councilmember Graham -- in the tariff that lays out Pepco's claims in their claims process. This is very difficult to, in our opinion, and even in the -- due to the comments that have been made by the councilmember that it almost excludes them from liability for anything. And we have called upon the Public Service Commission to look into that claims and the claims process so that it could be more beneficial to consumers.
PENNINGTONI know that when there was -- that each time there was a power outage in D.C., Pepco had a series of conference calls every day to officials and stakeholders in order to explain the process of what was happening. How many people were being turned on, we're getting the power turned back on and answering questions from elected officials and from interested parties.
PENNINGTONAnd one of questions that I asked one day had to do with the claims process. But we were kindly told that since it was due to inclement weather, that this was not a claims event. And that's something that OPC has asked the Public Service Commission to look into. Because people -- particularly, this summer was very challenging and very hard for electric utility consumers, for everyone across the city. And every time that's -- that the power went out, we send out consumer alerts on what people should do and how they can preserve their food and the steps that they can take in order to first contact Pepco regarding the power outage and other steps that would help them get through this difficult situation.
NNAMDITed, thank you very much for your call. There's a whole lot more that the Office of People's Counsel is involved with. Expanding broadband access is a challenge, especially in poor districts. Can you tell us in 30 seconds or less some of your recommendations for what to do about that?
PENNINGTONYes. We've also called on the Public Service Commission to look into that and work closely with, you know, filling comments before the FCC as well. We are in support of the development of broadband access in D.C. And we want to make sure that we can facilitate getting broadband to everyone who needs it.
NNAMDIYour office also recommends energy audits. Are there free energy audits consumers can take advantage of?
PENNINGTONYes. And they are offered through the District Department of the Environment. And we encourage people to do that with respect to energy efficiency. And the SmartMeters are one way in which we're told that people can take charge and take command of their energy consumption and energy use. But the first thing that people really need to do is to get that free energy audit to see where they're losing heat through any leaks in the home. And then there are measures that can happen, low-cost measures as well as, you know, a high-cost measures being, like, solar panels.
NNAMDIBrenda Pennington is the interim director of the Office of People's Counsel of the District of Columbia. Obviously, there's a lot more to talk about. Will you come back with us (unintelligible) ?
PENNINGTONYes, there is. I certainly will.
NNAMDIThank you very much for joining us. And thank you very much for promising to return. We end today's broadcast on a sad note. Carla Cohen, the co-owner of Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., died this morning at the age of 74. She joined this broadcast many times over the years to share her joy of reading. She leaves behind the business that she, along with business partner Barbara Meade, grew into a local institution, a place that has thrived for the past 26 years as a neighborhood storefront where writers, politicians and thinkers from around the globe have stopped to discuss their work. Politics & Prose will continue but without Carla Cohen, and she will be missed. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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