Tuesday is day 13 without power for the Pascalev family of Bethesda.
Pepco disconnected electricity service to the home on Sleaford Road after almost two years of husband Mario Pascalev and wife Assya Pascalev refusing to pay the utility’s $14-a-month fee for customers who opt out of its smart meter program.
Despite sweating through record heat over the weekend and more high temperatures Monday, the Pascalevs said they will continue their protest against smart meters, the opt-out fee requirement and what they claim is a series of inaccurate billing statements from Pepco. The couple has copies of checks sent to Pepco through certified mail showing they paid for their electricity use, but not the smart meter opt-out fee.
“There is the notion of unjust laws and civil disobedience against unjust laws,” Mario Pascalev said Friday while sitting in a downtown Bethesda Starbucks. “It is wrong and [Pepco] should not be able to force it on you.”
The family, which includes two teenage children age 13 and 18, have coped with the lack of air conditioning in the house by hanging out in Bethesda coffee shops and bookstores.
Chevy Chase resident Deborah Vollmer, whose power has remained on as she goes through a formal review process over her own refusal to pay Pepco’s smart meter opt-out fees, helped pay for part of the Pascalev family’s stay over the weekend in a downtown Bethesda hotel.
From 2011 to 2013, Pepco began replacing old electricity-reading meters on homes with digital smart meters—technology the utility and state regulators say provides more detailed information on energy use and can save customers money.
Maryland’s Public Service Commission, which regulates the utility industry, issued an order in February 2014 that established a $75 upfront charge and $14-per-month fee for Pepco customers who don’t get a smart meter. The regulators ruled utility companies around the state should be allowed to recover “incurred costs created by opt-out customers” still using the older meter technology.
Like Vollmer, the Pascalevs object to the smart meters by claiming they could emit harmful radiation, are a fire hazard and are a privacy concern because they could help Pepco track exactly when electricity is being used in the house.
When asked about the lack of any conclusive evidence linking the smart meters to harmful radiation, Assya Pascalev said the family would “rather err on the side of safety.”
“Until there is clarity one way or another, we’d rather take a precautionary approach,” said Assya Pascalev, a philosophy professor at Howard University. “I realize that under this current arrangement, we owe them the fees, but I disagree with the arrangement. I disagree with the principal by which this is being allowed to happen.”
The Pascalevs also disagree with how much Pepco says they owe in overdue payments. Pepco’s notice in May that electricity would soon be disconnected said the family owed $855.35 in overdue fees, an amount the Pascalevs said exceeded the opt-out fees they haven’t paid plus any additional late fees.
Confusing matters further is the fact the Pascalevs said they unknowingly paid the initial $75 upfront charge through three $25 payments in July, August and September 2014 because they had set up auto-pay for their Pepco bills and spent part of that summer on a vacation.
Assya Pascalev showed a reporter Pepco bills from October and November 2014 that contained two more $25 fees for the smart meter opt-out fee upfront payment. She also showed a reporter a copy of one payment the family sent Pepco in January 2015 that wasn’t deposited until earlier this month.
In a statement provided by Pepco after Bethesda Beat forwarded the Pascalev family’s complaints about billing inconsistencies, the company said “Pepco works with all of our customers to address any billing concerns.”
“Monthly opt-out fees are authorized by the Maryland Public Service Commission to cover the additional costs to maintain the legacy metering system, including paying for meter reading, for customers that refuse a smart meter,” the statement from Pepco read. “We have the right to disconnect service as a last resort if a customer refuses to pay their bill in entirety.”
Pepco spokesperson Marcus Beal said there are 1,489 customers in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties who have opted out of the smart meter program, about 0.3 percent of the company’s total customer base in those two counties.
The Pascalevs have asked for help from the Public Service Commission and elected officials such as Rep. Chris Van Hollen. They said their goal is to get Pepco to turn the power back on as they sort through the billing issues, but they acknowledged they can only last so long without power.
The first day of school is Aug. 29. “You can’t do school work in a Starbucks,” Mario Pascalev said.
“This makes it really hard because it’s not just the two of us,” Assya Pascalev said. “We have two children and we have a dog in the house. And we are responsible for them and although they are patiently supportive, the thing is it’s a lot of extra work. Just physically, it wears you down.”