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Complaints from hundreds of Alliant Energy customers that bills have been higher this summer have to do with the hot weather and not with the utility’s conversion to “smart” meters that aren’t read manually, regulators appeared to agree this week. 

Members of the Iowa Utilities Board were skeptical of the technology theory, and seemed to accept Alliant’s explanation that it has been a hot summer.

Customer concerns about high summer cooling bills is common, Wendi Cigrand, Alliant’s manager for customer support, told the board.

But the complaints this year seem exacerbated by social media comments and news coverage that “drove an increased awareness and created the perception of high bills,” she said.

Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, where many of the objections originated, made a list of 550 complaints and posted it to Facebook. Alliant has about 750,000 customers across the state.

The other factor has been the weather. Cigrand said that when measured in cooling degree days, May was three times hotter than normal for the past 20 years and June was 53 percent hotter than normal.

Alliant has contacted many of the customers who had complained either to the utility or its regulators, Cigrand said. The vast majority were able to understand the factors that influenced their bills, she said.

“Over 70 percent did not have unusually high bills based on a review of their usage the past two years,” Cigrand told commissioners. Their energy usage “was the same or nearly the same as they have experienced in prior years.”

“I’m just going to say it,” utilities board Commissioner Nick Wagner said. “Based on the data, there is no correlation between whether it is a (smart meter) or not. I think there were other factors at play.”

Still, complaints about the higher bills spill over into an open case before regulators regarding Alliant’s transition to smart meters, according to Wolfe and Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, D-Cedar Rapids.

Smart meters record and share daily power use between the user and electricity supplier over a wireless radio signal. Alliant’s meters send a radio frequency six times a day for .15 seconds — or less than one collective second per day — back to Alliant to provide near real-time readings on energy usage. Daily meter readings — which measure only the amount of energy used — eliminate estimated energy bills.

Some people want to keep their analog meters, which require the utility to physically read them.

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According to the American Cancer Society, smart meters give off non-ionizing low-energy radiation that cannot damage DNA directly. Although the RF radiation emitted by smart meters is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” it isn’t clear what risk, if any, smart meters pose.

Wolfe also noted customer concerns that digital meters “are more sensitive and more prone to false readings (and) that they pick up phantom energy that is sitting in wires that’s not being used,” she said.

Utility commissioners have a Nov. 5 hearing on an Alliant proposal that would allow customers to use digital meters that do not transmit readings. It would charge those customers $15 a month for each digital meter.

Wolfe and Running-Marquardt acknowledged that utilities are following regulations, but they still may try to intervene on behalf of their constituents.

“It will be difficult, to be honest, to break through regulatory rules to determine what we can do as legislators, what authority we have,” Wolfe said. “To some extent, we don’t have much. We can file bills. If they pass, that would change what the IUB is required to do.”

Running-Marquardt encouraged Alliant customers to file complaints to “give us a record and more importantly give the IUB a record that people are experiencing high bills that they believe are disproportionate to their usage.”

Filing a complaint would give regulators “hard-core evidence” rather than anecdotes online, she said.

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