- Montana lawmakers have overwhelmingly approved a bill advancing the potential deployment of smart meters, though advocates say it is an incremental step in a state where privacy concerns are likely to spark debate.
- House Bill 267 establishes privacy provisions regarding advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) data, and directs the Public Service Commission (PSC) to determine whether utilities must develop opt-out programs if customers do not want the new meters.
- The law, which the governor is expected to sign, would require the PSC to make the opt-out determination by July 1, 2020. Montana currently does not have AMI installed, and advocates say the process to consider an opt-out program should ease the state into consideration of the new technology.
Energy policy in Montana has been contentious in recent years. Could smart meters be one policy point that all stakeholders agree on?
"I think this will be a good process," Brian Fadie, clean energy director at the Montana Environmental Information Center, told Utility Dive. "There is a decent amount of animosity" among state regulators, the state's largest utility, NorthWestern, and renewables advocates, he said. "But on this, I think it will be a pretty smooth process."
"On those issues, there's a lot of conflict, but on this, I don't think there's conflict, just genuine curiosity," said Fadie.
NorthWestern installed automatic meter reading (AMR) technology in the late 1990s, but so far does not have a plan to upgrade to more granular AMI. It became involved with the bill's development to help write the definition of AMI, because initial versions of the legislation would have meant potentially including expensive opt-out programs for existing meters that have been in the system for almost 20 years.
"There is no way utilities are going to give an opt-out for meters that have been in place 18 to 20 years," said NorthWestern attorney John Alke, who worked with Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R, on the bill. The final terminology defined AMI as something programmable, capable of certain functions.
Privacy was a core component of the bill, according to primary sponsor Zolnikov, who has developed other legislation centered around privacy and data security.
In addition to directing regulators to study the opt-out concept, the law says a customer's energy use data is "private and confidential and may not be disclosed by a utility." It also requires 60-day advance notice of AMI installation.
The bill "protects consumers who have concerns, and gives them an opt-out instead of a bunch of unknowns," Zolnikov told Utility Dive, citing wide support for the measure.
"When people feel like they're being forced, they tend to push back," he said. "This keeps in mind people who may have concerns. It's a really good balance."
With the utility's AMR metering safe, NorthWestern may look to improve on the meter data it collects now. In its South Dakota territory, which is smaller, Alke said a total AMI rollout would likely be complete by the end of the year.
"There's never been a barrier to the rollout of advanced metering [in Montana] besides the capital requirements," he said. Though he acknowledged that a fairly small set of customers "are just adamantly opposed to smart meters because they think the meters are capable of spying."
The new legislation "will help move the issue forward," said Alke. "I don't think this will be contentious at all."