Grant cuts Houston utility costs

HOUSTON Speaking from one of the nation's largest solar farms in Florida, the president announced a $3.4 billion investment in energy projects in 49 states, including Texas. Houston will be getting one of the biggest shares of the grant -- $200 million in federal dollars.

These funds will be paying for something utility customers already pay for on his or her electric bill. Houstonians are paying $3 for the smart meters, and that charge is scheduled to be on electric bills for another 11 years. But the money coming from the federal government may change that.

"I switched over from another company, and to be honest, my bill has gone down a whole lot," smart meter customer Shonda Hawthorne said. "I am grateful anyway."

The Public Utility Commission of Texas gave Centerpoint Energy the authorization to charge the #3.24 fee for 12 years to pay for the new equipment. Electricity users have no choice but to pay the fee.

Now the federal government is giving $200 million to the company to offset some of the cost. That will cut the length of time Houstonians have to pay for the devices.

"Anything is good," smart meter customer Jesse Botello said. "The less money, the better for everybody."

Just how much customers will save once Centerpoint receives the grant money has yet to be determined.

"The benefit is there because the grant is going to give us money that we would not have had otherwise," Centerpoint representative Kenny Mercado said. "Now we have to convert that into a calculation that says it will be months or years at the back end. We just don't know at this point."

The $200 million will speed up the installation of the smart meters by about two years. Centerpoint said once the meters and the accompanying smart grid are in place, consumers will be able to cut their bills even more. "This digital environment allows a tremendous more amounts of data to build a flow from retailers to the customers," Mercado said, "and that data can drive down pricing and drive down cost. It can give alternative pricing."

Proponents of the smart grid said it will make fixing outages faster, it will also let the power company read your meter remotely. But for those who are concerned that the electric company could shut off power to his or her home if an emergency is declared, energy officials said that customers will be able to eventually opt into that kind of control. Customers must elect to provide the power provider that kind of ability.

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