LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- A small but outspoken group of residential customers vows to continue battling Michigan's largest utility company over the freedom to opt out of having "smart" meters installed outside their homes.
State regulators' days-old decision to approve an opt-out provision -- if residents pay $67 upfront and nearly $10 a month to DTE Electric -- has sparked outrage among those concerned about the two-way wireless electricity meters for privacy or health reasons. Consumers Energy, the state's other dominant utility, has a similar request pending before the Michigan Public Service Commission.
"For them to say this is an opt-out is just like slapping the public in the face," said Dominic Cusumano, who was sued last year by DTE for removing a smart meter from his house in Addison Township 35 miles north of Detroit. His wife, Lillian, said the device caused her to have extreme headaches, achy muscles, anxiety and sleep problems.
"If you want to opt out and pay the fees, they will send someone out to your house and turn off the transmitter," said Dominic Cusumano, who contends residents should be able to keep their old-style meters. "You will pay them an exorbitant fee for someone every month to come and read it."
Utilities across the country have been replacing analog meters in recent years partly to better manage demand on the power grid. The advanced meters -- which monitor usage via radio frequency -- give more accurate readings, eliminate in-person checks from utility workers and help utilities to better pinpoint and respond to power outages.
By giving real-time feedback on energy use, smart meters also can promote conservation. Utilities, for instance, may move toward charging residential customers more or less in peak or off-peak hours. As a start, DTE is offering to remotely cycle customers' air conditioners off and on in heat waves -- potentially saving 30 percent on their cooling bill.
"We don't want to put our customers in a situation of having them use appliances when they don't want to. This will be totally voluntary," said DTE spokesman Scott Simons.
He said smart meters expose people to fewer radio frequency signals than cellphones, baby monitors or microwaves. Public Service Commission spokeswoman Judy Palnau said the panel in 2012 decided any health risks associated with the meters were "insignificant."
The debate over smart meters has caught the attention of two dozen local governments and the Legislature, where some Republicans and Democrats have introduced bills to prohibit opt-out fees and to ban the sale of energy usage data to third parties without customers' permission. Also siding with homeowners is state Attorney General Bill Schuette's office, which urged against any upfront charge to DTE customers and recommended a monthly fee of no more than 74 cents.
Schuette, who could challenge the Public Service Commission's Wednesday order in the state appeals court, also said DTE should let customers keep their analog meters instead of turning off transmitters on advanced meters. The Cusumanos argue that turning off transmitters and receivers does not eliminate all the problems.
"This is going to come to a head. There are people that are truly concerned," said Rep. Tom McMillin, who argues the issue should at the very least be aired out in a legislative committee hearing.
The Rochester Hills Republican, who has his own fears about whether the new meters invade people's privacy, said his legislation would be less important if residents could shop elsewhere for power.
"Without choice, this is a monopoly and they don't have another option. We should not charge them," McMillin said.
DTE is further along deploying electric smart meters and upgraded natural gas readers than Consumers Energy.
DTE has installed more than 1 million in metropolitan Detroit since doing pilots in 2008 and 2009, with a goal of connecting 3.9 million statewide. In setting the opt-out charges, the state assumed 15,500 DTE customers would choose to have their smart meter disabled.
Consumers has installed about 61,000 of the 2.4 million it plans to connect through 2019, starting in counties west of Grand Rapids. The utility is proposing an upfront opt-out fee of nearly $70, with a monthly $11 charge. It would cost $124 upfront to remove the device if one has already been installed.
Palnau said the intent is to charge customers for the true cost of not having advanced meters. Consumers for now is letting customers keep analog meters if they object to the new meters.
"It does not have two-way communications capability but also hinders our efforts to serve customers as efficiently and effectively as what another meter will," spokesman Dennis McKee said.
State's order in DTE smart meter opt-out case: http://bit.ly/112hbha
House Bill 4315: http://1.usa.gov/10WD3Ah
House Bill 4728: http://1.usa.gov/Z1Pxqm
Email David Eggert at deggert(at)ap.org and follow him at http://twitter.com/DavidEggert00