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Ky. low-income groups see little benefit to utilities' advanced meter plans

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Ky. low-income groups see little benefit to utilities' advanced meter plans

Low-income customers are unlikely to benefit from a proposal by Louisville Gas and Electric Co. and Kentucky Utilities Co. to install advanced metering systems across their Kentucky service territories, low-income advocacy groups said.

The PPL Corp. subsidiaries are seeking approval from the Public Service Commission for a plan to replace about 413,000 electric meters and add about 334,000 advanced metering systems gas indexes in Louisville Gas and Electric's, or LG&E's, service territory. In Kentucky Utilities' service territory in the state, about 531,000 electric meters will be replaced. The companies have estimated the capital cost of the deployment at $103.7 million for LG&E electric, $61.5 million for LG&E's gas division and $146.7 million for Kentucky Utilities.

Customers will benefit from the new meters through the ability to learn more about and change their energy use, the companies said. The new technology will give customers the ability to access, through a web portal, information about their usage, to download consumption patterns to better understand how they use energy and to explore different products and programs that may align to their needs.

But groups that work with low-income communities said technological and economic barriers make it hard for low-income customers take advantage of this opportunity. In testimony filed in response to the proposal, the Association of Community Ministries Inc. said low-income households have low rates of internet access and do not always have the time or the ability to find access elsewhere.

"It is not realistic to expect that many will have the time and resources to devote to travelling to a library periodically for the purpose of monitoring their energy usage, no matter how motivated they may be to save money on their utility bills," said Michael Ashabraner, the group's deputy treasurer. Even if low-income households are able to access their energy use information, the Community Action Council for Lexington-Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison, and Nicholas Counties Inc. said their ability to adjust their usage to reduce energy expenses is limited.

"Since utility costs are a well-known burden in these families' budgets, many of them are already making whatever adjustments they are able to make to lower their utility bills," Malcolm Ratchford, the group's executive director, said in testimony.

A consultant testifying on behalf of the Kentucky Attorney General's office said regulators should reject the proposal. Wired Group President Paul Alvarez said the companies overstated the benefits and understated the costs of the smart meter plan.

Rejecting the proposal would not be unprecedented. The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission in April denied a smart meter proposal from Public Service Co. of New Mexico, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities recently rejected smart meter investments proposed by National Grid USA and Eversource Energy.

The companies said in a statement that they worked with an advanced metering systems collaborative group that included representatives from low-income groups, the attorney general's office and other interested parties to address questions and concerns before filing its latest request with the commission.

"While we're still in the process of reviewing documents filed last week, we have identified operational efficiencies, reduced operating costs, and features available through the advanced meter service that will benefit all customers," the companies said.

A formal hearing on the proposal is scheduled for July 24. (Kentucky Public Service Commission Case No. 2018-00005)