Landis + Gyr smart meters. Photo courtesy of CPS Energy.
Landis + Gyr smart meters. Photo courtesy of CPS Energy.

A group of Alamo Heights residents who question the safety and security of smart meters deployed by CPS Energy had hoped to halt deployment of the digital devices in the municipality, but their push to amend the City’s Charter to allow residents to opt out of smart meters for free has failed – for now.

CPS Energy customers everywhere already can opt out of smart meter installation. That decision, however, comes with a one-time fee to install an Offsite Meter Read meter and a $20 monthly reading fee each time CPS Energy has to dispatch a meter reader to the residence. Low income customers can apply for a reduced rate. Residents don’t have to pay the one-time fee to opt out if they notify CPS Energy before the smart meter is installed.

Alamo Heights residents requesting the vote at the Monday evening City Council meeting wanted the City Charter to state, after a public vote, that a property owner can refuse installation or demand removal of a digital and/or radio frequency transmitting metering device without paying a fee. The state’s deadline for calling a May special election is Friday, 5 p.m., and Alamo Heights officials said they are not prepared to schedule such a vote. The publicly-owned energy utility is scheduled to deploy smart meters to Alamo Heights residential customers starting this spring.

Smart meter opponents could try to get the issue on November’s ballot.

CPS Energy’s four-year program to install a San Antonio-area smart grid includes plans to deploy 740,000 smart meters to replace older, analog meters. The automated meters would collect detailed information on a property owner’s electricity use and transmit it to the utility via radio frequencies. CPS Energy officials have said this will enable the utility to identify and fix power outages faster, and reduce expenses by eliminating regular visits by meter readers, among other positives.

A group of local residents, including Susan Straus, sister of Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, have repeatedly expressed their health and privacy concerns with officials from Alamo Heights and CPS Energy since the City of San Antonio-owned utility began planning last year for the long-term installation of smart meters. Some residents say incidents and research from around the United States and Canada lead them to believe the meters are a fire risk, unsafe with radio frequencies usage, and even a form a personal intrusion.

Late last summer, critics managed to persuade Alamo Heights officeholders to request – and ultimately receive – an installation delay from CPS Energy. Now, with reports that the utility would begin meter replacement sooner than expected, Susan Straus launched a petition drive in early February to win a charter amendment election. On Feb. 13, she submitted the petition with 443 signatures. City staff validated 373 of the signatures.

Before the City Council could entertain the notion of voting Monday to set the special election, City Attorney Mike Brenan threw up a caution flag. CPS Energy recently wrote Brenan, saying Alamo Heights lacked authority in “dictating” to the utility how it provides energy to customers. Utility officials warned that calling such a special election, especially if the proposal were to pass, could lead to a court challenge

Council members asked Brenan to seek an opinion from the state attorney general’s office on whether it is permissible for the city to consider a special election of this magnitude.

Disheartened by the decision, some audience members pleaded for city officials to at least ask CPS Energy for an extended delay in local installation the smart meters. Mayor Louis Cooper said he would communicate that concern to CPS Energy, and ask the utility to clarify how property owners could opt out of the smart meter program.

*Featured/top image: Landis + Gyr smart meters. Photo courtesy of CPS Energy.

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Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.