hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Fast track to a smart grid

Some raise privacy, health concerns as wireless meters arrive in Vermont


Contributing writer

Supporters say it’s a big leap forward for energy conservation in Vermont: Over the next few months, utility customers across the state are set to receive new, wireless electric meters.

Power companies say the new “smart meters” will save money, both for customers and the companies, and will help cut down on pollution and reduce power outages.

“We believe this is going to be a very good thing for our customers, for Vermont and for the environment at large,” said Steve Costello, a spokesman for Central Vermont Public Service, the state’s largest utility.

But just as the installation is set to begin in Bennington and Rutland counties, some people are starting to question whether the new meters have enough safeguards to protect consumers’ privacy. Some also fear the possible adverse health effects they say could result from widespread use of the wireless meters.

Opponents are calling for a statewide moratorium on the new technology. Late last month, a group of smart-meter opponents picketed in front of Central Vermont Public Service headquarters in Rutland to raise awareness about their concerns.

The protesters vowed this was just the beginning of their efforts to get the word out. They said they were unaware until recently about possible problems with smart-grid technology.

The debate is heating up in Vermont because the state is among the first to embrace the new technology.

The federal government has been promoting the new meters, already in use in Europe, as a way to revamp the nation’s aging power network. Vermont is moving forward after getting a $68 million federal Department of Energy grant, matched by the state’s utilities, to start installing the new meters.

Better efficiency, lower costs

Costello, the CVPS spokesman, said the new metering system will allow his company to pinpoint outages immediately and to shift power usage during peak periods. That will help it reduce its reliance on the most polluting power plants, which are now used on only the hottest and coldest days.

The new system also will allow utilities to make better use of power from renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines.

Costello said the new system will directly benefit customers as well, by giving them hour-by-hour information online about their own energy consumption. That will help customers to better control their own costs, he said.

CVPS plans to start installing meters in Rutland County in the first few months of 2012 and in Bennington County after that. Green Mountain Power expects to start its installation in Bennington County by the end of this year.

The smart-grid project also involves upgrading substations to make them more reliable; that work is already under way. Customers are expected to see benefits from the new system by the end of 2012, Costello said.

The new technology isn’t expected to make it to the Berkshires or eastern New York in the near future. Saratoga County had been eyed for a pilot smart-grid project in 2009, but National Grid was passed over in its bid for federal stimulus money for the project.

But Vermont was successful in its quest for a share of funds made available by the 2009 federal economic stimulus bill. Under the bill, the U.S. Department of Energy established a $3.4 billion grant fund for smart-grid installations around the country. Vermont received its grant in 2009, and its utilities started upgrading.

A high-tech power grid

Proponents say the new “smart meters” will send information directly to the utility, saving the expense and time delay of meter readers. Customers will be able to view their usage in real time on a Web page.

This will allow customers to become more aware of their electric usage and perhaps better plan to use appliances at times when power demand is low and the cost is less.

At some point in the future, customers will be able to buy “smart” appliances that can communicate with the system. This would allow the appliances to be set to operate automatically at low-cost times.

Customers could also give their utility permission to shut off their appliances, like air conditioners, temporarily during peak usage to prevent outages. Some businesses elsewhere in the country already do this.

With less power usage during peak periods of demand, backers say there would be less air pollution, because utilities wouldn’t have to start up the dirtiest of their power plants as they do now when extra power is needed.

The smart grid can also adjust demand to match intermittent power generated from solar and wind. And it will be better able to accommodate new usage from plug-in electric vehicles by letting them charge at night, when wind power is abundant and less expensive.

The new automated system is expected to help make the electrical grid more reliable and provide quicker storm recovery, because utilities will be able to see immediately where an outage is as it happens, backers say.

The new system will also make it easier for people who produce their own power, such as from solar panels or a wind turbine, to sell the excess to utilities.

Unknown health effects

Some Vermonters, though, say there have been problems with new smart-grid programs in places like in California and Maine. They say more questions about the system need to be answered before it goes forward locally.

The protesters who showed up in front of Central Vermont Public Service’s headquarters in Rutland in late October said they have formed a group that is now pushing for a statewide moratorium. They are talking with people in California and Maine, where towns have passed moratoriums and bans on smart-meter systems.

Marlene Victor of Manchester said opponents want to put the brakes on a program they believe has been fast-tracked with too little public input.

“It just seems very ill-thought-out,” Victor said as she stood outside the CVPS office while snow and rain fell. “This is a whole new world that people have to learn about. I was so shocked to find that smart meters were coming to Vermont so soon.”

One big concern is what critics say are the unknown potential health effects of electromagnetic radiation from wireless meters that would be placed outside every house and business throughout the state. More of this radiation would eventually be emitted by the wireless elements in new “smart” appliances in houses.

Very little research has been done on possible health effects from smart meters. The study that the meters’ critics point to most often is one published earlier this year in California that, using computer models, found that individuals’ exposure to radio-frequency radiation could exceed Federal Communications Commission guidelines under certain circumstances.

Opponents also point to a ruling by the World Health Organization earlier this year that put radio-frequency electromagnetic fields, such as those emitted by wireless devices, in a “possibly carcinogenic” category. Cell phones use radio frequencies similar to those smart meters, although at higher exposure.

Outdated safety rules?

Janet Newton, president of the nonprofit EMR Policy Institute in Marshfield, Vt., said the FCC guidelines that cover smart meters are outdated and probably aren’t strong enough. The regulations, she said, were written in 1996 based on research done in the 1980s.

The National Academy of Sciences in 2008 found problems with the current research on radio-frequency radiation, she said. It found that the research looks only at one frequency coming from one direction, whereas nowadays, people are exposed to multiple frequencies from many directions inside and outside the home, up to 24 hours per day.

The academy also found that there has been little study on pulsed radiation, the type emitted by wireless devices.

And the research that’s been done has looked only at the effects on what’s called an “ideal male” -- a male that’s 6 feet tall and 200 pounds -- because the standards were drawn up originally with military personnel in mind. The standards don’t take into account all other people, with fetuses and children a particularly important group, although those subgroups are considered in research for clean air and water regulations, Newton said.

Costello, the CVPS spokesman, said the Federal Communications Commission has ruled the radiation emitted by the meters will be below acceptable limits.

“The FCC has judged that smart meters are completely safe,” Costello said. “We have to rely on those regulations. We’re not experts in health.”

The meters use radio frequency signals that are similar to those emitted by common devices like baby monitors and garage-door openers, he said. Even so, he added, the utility and government agencies will continue to follow peer-reviewed studies to see if anything changes.

In the meantime, customers can choose to opt out of getting a meter, although the utility will impose a $10 monthly fee for having to send out a meter reader.

‘A done deal’

Felix Kniazev, an artist who lives part time in Wells, co-organized the picketing at CVPS and brought his small children.

“This is just the beginning – the first step to educate the public,” Kniazev said of the protest.

His wife, Olga Julinska, said in an interview the day before that she believes the decision was rushed without enough public input. There have been promotional ads touting the program’s benefits but no mention of other issues, she said.

“By the time we found out about it, it was sort of too late to fight back,” she said. “It’s already been approved. It was a done deal.”

Julinska said that while individual residents can opt out if they’re worried about radiation, there will still be meters everywhere else.

“We’re going to be saturated with the radiation, and we don’t understand yet exactly how it affects people,” she said.

The new source of radiation will add to what’s already being emitted by Wi-Fi and cell towers, she said.

“So is this something we want? Smart meters?” she asked. “And what’s next? Smart appliances? At what point to you say, ‘OK, this is enough’?”

She said the state could have avoided the electromagnetic radiation problem by hard-wiring the grid.

But Costello, the CVPS spokesman, said that the utility studies all the options and found wireless to be “the most cost effective and the most effective method.”

Privacy concerns

Like other opponents, Julinska also said she doesn’t like the idea of utilities getting so much control over information with an instant connection.

“It’s scary, and there should be more dialogue about this,” she said.

The group was setting up a Web site – stopsmeters.org – in early November.

Julinska and Kniazev and others have presented their concerns to the Vermont Public Service Board, which already approved the project but is now writing up rules for its implementation.

Joining them with concern about the privacy issue is Allen Gilbert, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont.

Gilbert told the board at a hearing in September that the ACLU wants to ensure that police cannot obtain customers’ smart-meter data unless a court issues a warrant for the data.

He also said the ACLU is also asking that any subpoenas for data be presented to customers, not the company, so they can question it.

The civil liberties group is also concerned that the data might be shared, sold or given to third parties, and Gilbert urged the board to require that a customer give consent before any information is given out.

Costello, the CVPS spokesman, said that the utility has been protecting customer data for decades and will continue to do so.

“There are very strict protocols,” he said. “No information goes to any outside party, including police, without a court order or subpoena.”

He said the utility will not be marketing any information it gets from the meters.

Change or pay

Some customers are angry about the $10 opt-out fee.

Gilbert said that could unfairly discriminate against certain groups that don’t believe they can have the wireless device nearby, like people with implanted medical devices that might not work with the radio frequency interference.

He said there should instead be an “opt-in” provision to the new meter program, with consent renewal every two years.

But Costello and Green Mountain Power spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure said the fee is needed to cover the cost of sending a meter reader to the house.

The fee is still less than the $30 meter-reader fee imposed in Maine’s smart-grid program, Costello pointed out.

“It might be the only house within miles,” Schnure said. “Vermont rate-making procedures are that if you’re the one that causes the cost to be incurred, you need to pay that.”

Despite the concerns, national environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace International support the smart-meter concept.

The Environmental Defense Fund, which in its own words had been “championing the smart grid,” concluded in a report that a smart-grid program “done right” promises substantial environmental and economic benefits. The report acknowledged concerns about possible health risks and said consumer concerns should be addressed proactively, with regulators and utilities allowing customers to opt out and perhaps setting up the system from the start with broadband cable rather than wireless connections.

The group has acknowledged that some activists, including some Environmental Defense members, believe the organization is “buying into what they consider a dangerous technology” and ignoring data suggesting a possible health hazard. But it says it reviewed the data and “decided that the case for smart meters is still very much stronger than the case against them.”

The Environmental Defense Fund says the new two-way network could create tens of thousands of jobs and reduce the national electricity sector’s carbon emissions by as much as 30 percent by 2030.

“A well-designed smart grid will drive the clean energy revolution we need,” the group’s report concluded.

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