Digital smart meters have done away with the need for utilities to send a technician to a customer's home in order to shut off service. Now a company can cut off power at the click of a mouse when someone falls behind on payment.
The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio has already given two of the state's regulated utilities permission to forgo final, in-person warnings before shutting off service for non-payment for customers with smart meters, and a third company is seeking the same exemption.
While an employee no longer needs to manually flip a switch on-site to start or stop service, ratepayer advocates say personal contact is critical to protect vulnerable customers who may have missed mailed notices or robocalls. The visits provide an eleventh-hour opportunity to keep the lights on.
"I think that there is immense benefit in visiting a home before shutting off the power," said Sanya Carley, an Indiana University professor whose research focuses on energy justice. From interviews with people across the country, her group learned that many people miss other attempted notifications. An in-person visit could have let them make a payment and avoid disconnection and fees, along with all of the social, mental, and economic strain associated with disconnections.
Ohio rules have long required both a prior mailing and then personal notice on the day of disconnection. Companies may give crew members discretion to make extended payment arrangements or provide other ways to avoid disconnection.