How smart are ‘Smart Meters'?

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BENNINGTON -- A Central Vermont Public Service presentation in Bennington later this month will seek to answer questions and allay fears over the coming changeover to new wireless "smart meters."

Installation of the new meters will roll out in Rutland County beginning in February, according to Melinda Humphrey, a CVPS representative. The company will turn to Bennington County soon afterward, and expects to implement the change over its entire service area by the end of 2012.

The CVPS SmartPower presentation is scheduled for Jan. 19, at 7 p.m., in the Rotary Room of the Bennington Free Library. The Bennington County Regional Commission is hosting the presentation and question and answer session as part of its regular monthly meeting.

Brian Keefe, a Manchester resident and CVPS vice president of government and public affairs, will be the evening's main presenter.

"For most people, they're really starting out with not much knowledge on what a smart grid is, or what we're trying to do, so a lot of it is pretty basic information," said Steve Costello, a spokesman for CVPS. "What we're doing, how it will benefit them, and answer any questions they might have."

Meters would modernize system

The new meters are part of a $138 million statewide initiative to modernize and automate the electrical grid. The meters will transmit data wirelessly from businesses and residences to the utility company as part of a new digital "smart grid."

"It'll be a tool for both the utility and the customer," said Costello. "From our perspective, it'll give us real-time information on energy usage, it'll help us manage the grid more efficiently, maintain voltage better, integrate renewable energy small-scale projects onto the grid more easily and effectively, and also give us a lot of data when outages occur."

He said the end result would be a more stable and reliable energy network. "Particularly in large storm situations, it'll give us a much clearer picture than we can get today of what's going on out there. And it'll also help us manage loads, particularly on peak periods."

Customers with smart meters will be able to call a phone number or go online to review their energy usage in almost real time. "From the customer's perspective, it'll give the customer a broad view look at how they're using electricity. Today, most people don't think a whole lot about it. We're going to give them tools ... to see how they're using energy," Costello said.

In the future, utilities will be able to offer different rate choices, like Time-of-Use and real-time pricing, to reflect peak-time and off-hours energy demand. "Based on the individual customer's usage patterns, they'll be able to tell which rate is the best rate for them," said Costello. "The information in general will make them more aware of when and how they're using electricity -- and that alone for a lot of people will make them more energy conscious."

Costello compared the customer's ability to view real-time usage to mileage computers outfitted in new vehicles. "I know a lot of people who use those things and they've become much more efficient drivers because of it."

Humphrey said customers would receive a notice in the mail about a month before implementation starts in the area, and then a second postcard notice approximately two weeks in advance. Like normal meter routes, she said CVPS would not know the exact day residents should expect a worker to arrive, but she said the company would be in contact with local agencies and the contractors will be identifiable as from CVPS by their vehicles and badges.

The new meters take fifteen minutes to install. Customers will be able to "opt out" of having a new wireless meter installed. A $10 monthly fee to opt out is currently planned, but Humphrey said the fee was still in the regulatory process.

Last Tuesday, state Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, introduced a bill which would require utilities to obtain written consent before installing a wireless smart meter, and also allow for the option of a wired smart meter to be installed at no additional cost. The bill would also require utilities to remove wireless smart meters at no charge at the customer's request.

The state's largest utility, Humphrey said CVPS had held 50 SmartPower presentations in all corners of its service area to date, and would be holding dozens more as the months progress. Costello said the presentations had been effective and featured good turnout.

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Health concerns expressed

Health and privacy concerns revolving around the wireless technology -- using the same radio wave frequencies as cellphones and wireless internet routers -- have emerged during past meetings. In October 2011, protesters picketed in front of CVPS headquarters in Rutland and called for a moratorium on the wireless meters.

Last Thursday, Camilla Rees, an opponent of the meters, gave a talk at the Bennington Free Library on the "biological effects of electromagnetic fields," or EMF. Electromagnetic radiation is a form of energy classified by wavelength and includes radio waves, microwaves, infrared, and visible light.

Rees cited the proliferation of wireless radio signals over the 20th century as a "major failure of government," and called the radio waves an "invisible and increasingly prevalent form of air pollution." An activist on the subject, Rees said she began suffering a condition known as "electromagnetic hypersensitivity," caused by EMF, she said, in which she experienced dizziness, trouble concentrating and sleeping, and heart irregularities, among a slate of other symptoms.

"We don't think it's there, but it's there -- and it's making people sick," said Rees, the radio waves "affecting every system in our body." She said scientific studies to the contrary were influenced by corporate funding; while media reports on the subject are prejudiced by advertising dollars.

The World Health Organization acknowledges electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) as a general condition "characterized by a variety of non-specific symptoms ... not part of any recognized syndrome," and states there is some evidence the condition is psychosomatic.

A 2010 National Institutes of Health review of 46 separate double-blind studies testing whether the condition was linked to EMF exposure found no correlation.

The Federal Communications Commission regulates wireless communications and has established exposure limits for radio waves in consumer devices like cellphones. The FCC claims evidence of harmful biological effects from routinely encountered levels of radio waves is "ambiguous and unproven."

Rees said the FCC guidelines are inadequate. On Thursday, she also handed out business cards advertising a website where people could go to purchase radiofrequency meters, ranging in price from $34.95 to $499, and she urged at least one person in the community to purchase one. She was in Brattleboro the next day.

To relieve the effects of EMF exposure, Rees suggested going barefoot in a practice known as "Earthing."

Audience members spoke of petition efforts to get meter moratoriums passed on Town Meeting Day.

Costello said CVPS representatives would answer any questions about smart meters including privacy and health concerns.

"The privacy issue is something we as a utility have taken very, very seriously since our creation in 1929. We have a tremendous amount of private information from customers," said Costello. "We treat that as if it were our own private information, and that won't change as a result of this."

"As far as safety, we rely on federal agencies that regulate these types of devices, whether a baby monitor or a smart meter," he continued. "The federal government has determined there is no known link between these kinds of radio signals and any kind of health effect on humans, or any other animal for that matter."

CBCRC Director Jim Sullivan said the topic of smart meters had come up at a previous commission meeting, and he said he was looking forward to the presentation.

Contact Zeke Wright at ewright@benningtonbanner.com.


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