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Are Smart Meters The Smart Thing?

Carlis Nixon’s electric and water meter is about 8 feet from a window above her kitchen sink.

Nixon, 62, doesn’t have a dishwasher in her west Eugene home and says she spends quite a bit of time in the room every day, washing dishes and cooking.

If the Eugene Water & Electric Board replaces the meter with what’s known as a wireless “smart” meter, the former chairwoman of the Far West Neighborhood Association said she would worry about the amount of radio waves the new meter would emit when it tracks her household energy consumption.

Nixon also doesn’t think it’s worth the $26 million EWEB would pay for its smart meter project that could be completed in 2017.

“It’s really, really expensive to do,” Nixon said. “The benefits don’t justify the cost.

“They don’t justify the health risk.”

Nixon is among dozens of Eugene residents who aren’t sold on EWEB’s costly plan, which utility officials say will boost energy efficiency, save customers money and save EWEB $20 million over a two-decade period after installation.

Opponents of the project say that — on top of the radio waves already emitting from cell phones, WiFi networks and baby monitors — the 88,000 smart meters that EWEB wants to install would make them even more wary of wireless signals and their potential health effects.

Amid concerns by some customers, EWEB appears determined to move forward. But it is taking a go-slow approach.

The utility has been researching the technology since 2000. It has conducted several small pilot programs and plans to recruit several hundred customers for another pilot project this coming year.

EWEB staff members also have said they will give customers the choice to opt out of the smart meter project even if the utility’s elected board of commissioners gives the go-ahead to proceed — although customers who opt out might have to pay hundreds of dollars a year for on-site meter-reading service, on top of their bill for electric usage.

Winning over the commissioners, though, doesn’t appear to be a done deal.

Some have expressed their own reservations about the steep cost of the program. Two of the five utility commissioners earlier this year voted against authorizing continued EWEB smart meter work.

EWEB would not be the first utility in the state — or Lane County — to install smart meters. The Emerald People’s Utility District installed nearly 20,000 smart meters in its rural Lane County coverage area in 2006. Lane Electric Cooperative, another rural provider, installed about 13,000 smart meters in the same year.

The state’s largest utility, privately owned Portland General Electric, completed its installation of 825,000 smart meters in 2010. PGE faced some customer opposition, but the rural utilities avoided controversy because they opted for a system in which smart meters send data through already-installed power lines without emitting radio waves.

Urban areas typically use wireless meters because signals sent over power lines can get jumbled in high-density areas.

EWEB’s project reflects a nationwide trend toward digital meters that collect household and business energy consumption without the help of a meter reader.

The meters would create what’s called a “smart grid” that proponents say would be more efficient because homeowners can see how leaving a light on for hours affects their electric bill. The smart grid also would allow utilities to fix power outages quicker and eliminate meter reading and the staff that’s needed for that work.

If the utility’s commissioners vote in the fall to approve the project, Eugene would become the second largest city in Oregon, after Portland, to install the advanced metering system. Commissioners will vote as well on whether to approve a five-year contract with Sensus Metering Systems, a North Carolina-based manufacturer of smart meters.

If commissioners OK the project, EWEB’s full-scale rollout of smart meters likely would take place no earlier than 2017 — although the utility has delayed the project repeatedly in the past.

Members of the group Families for Safe Meters say their tenacity in raising questions about health and privacy concerns tied to the meters is the reason EWEB has delayed its rollout.

But EWEB smart meter project manager Greg Armstead said there are other reasons.

The rollout date first was delayed a decade ago because meter technology was not sufficiently advanced, Armstead said. When the utility started looking into the meters again in 2007, the recession hit.

Then, financial problems caused EWEB to eliminate 50 positions last year to cut costs, and the utility anticipates cutting another 20 positions this year. EWEB also needs to spend $150 million to $200 million to make upgrades to its Carmen-Smith Hydroelectric Project on the upper McKenzie River.

By 2017, EWEB anticipates that smart meter technology will be more advanced and cheaper, and customers will have a better idea of what to expect.

Customers such as Nixon, however, say they’ve made up their minds about the technology, regardless of when the rollout begins.

“I don’t think smart meters are a very smart idea,” Nixon said.

Information on power

The only difference between smart meters and the current mechanical meters is a radio.

The green radio chip inside a smart meter transmits energy consumption data to the utility in real time. That means meter readers don’t have to come out and record the information manually.

Homeowners can monitor their household energy data through an in-home system that would outline hourly energy consumption. Or to see their energy consumption in the past 24 hours, they can gain access to the data through a record of their account on EWEB’s website.

The idea is to help customers trim energy use during times of peak usage, when EWEB has to buy electricity at higher prices, Armstead said. Those periods are typically between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., while people get ready for work, and between 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. when people get home.

“When you get your bill and it’s $80, you can say, ‘OK. When am I using my power?’ ” Armstead said. “The in-home display will help you become a lot more informed and will allow you to shift when you run the dryer.”

With smart meters in place, the utility may consider charging customers more when they use power during those peak times. EWEB currently charges customers a flat rate for energy.

Armstead said if EWEB charges more during specific times of the day, that could encourage customers to do laundry during the early afternoon or turn off more lights.

Even if only 5 percent to 10 percent of customers began shifting their energy use schedules, the utility would save money by cutting its purchase of peak-time power, EWEB spokesman Lance Robertson said.

Nixon, however, said it isn’t realistic to think people — especially middle- to low-income families — can change routine consumption.

“It’s the same thing as rush hour,” she said. “If most people are scheduled on a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work day, it’s hard to have your traffic peak at different times.”

Board votes not certain

The utility plans to organize a yearlong smart meter pilot program either this fall or next spring.

EWEB will recruit more than 500 customers to participate in the $200,000 effort, which Armstead said will help staff better understand how customers feel about the new meters. The pilot program will charge customers either more or less for energy, depending on the amount and time of day of usage, to see how their bills change.

Before the pilot project begins, EWEB commissioners will vote to give the official go-ahead for the project and the contract with Sensus Metering Systems — the same company Portland General Electric chose for its smart meters.

EWEB commissioners in March authorized the utility by a 3-2 vote to continue developing and researching the smart meter project.

Commissioner Steve Mital, who voted “yes” in March, said in an e-mail he is not certain that now is the right time for EWEB to invest in a multimillion-dollar project.

Commissioner James Manning, who voted “no,” said he’s still learning more about the technology. He said the utility’s meter infrastructure — which EWEB officials say hasn’t changed much since the 1960s — needs to be updated.

Manning said he voted “no” earlier this year because he had concerns about the company that EWEB would contract with. Sensus was rumored in media reports in 2011 to be near bankruptcy.

“If they are likely to go out of business, I thought we probably wanted to look at an alternative,” Manning said.

Also, a Sensus employee filed a lawsuit in an Alabama federal district court against the company in 2010, alleging that it installed faulty meters that overheated. The lawsuit ultimately was dismissed.

A Sensus spokeswoman did not immediately return a phone call and e-mail requesting comment.

If commissioners approve the project, EWEB likely will use Sensus radios. But it could contract with several other companies that would install the meters, Armstead said.

Commissioner Dick Helgeson said he is concerned about how EWEB plans to pay for the project. He voted “no” in March because he felt the board didn’t have enough time to discuss the project.

“I was frankly surprised to see (EWEB staff bring) the contract forward” for board consideration, Helgeson said. “I’m just trying to determine in my own mind whether this is the time to be doing it.”

Helgeson said he’s also concerned that the project’s cost could push up the rates EWEB charges customers.

In May 2012, EWEB increased its electric rates 5.5 percent. This year, it increased the rate 4 percent, and will increase the rate again in November, by between 2 percent and 4 percent.

Armstead said the smart meter project will be funded largely through bond sales and from cash from EWEB’s reserves so as to avoid any additional rate increases. The spending plan would not be finalized until 2016, he said.

The utility predicts it would save about $2.76 million a year with a smart meter system. The bulk of the savings — about $1.3 million a year — would come from eliminating meter readers. The utility also would save about $250,000 a year by not having to manually turn off customers’ meters when they move in or out of a home or apartment.

With smart meters, Armstead said, the utility can turn off a customer’s power with a few clicks of a computer mouse.

Healthy skepticism

Opponents say the estimated savings do not outweigh the health risks.

Health concerns are rooted in what’s called “electromagnetic hypersensitivity.” Radiation from cell phones, baby monitors, microwaves and WiFi networks, proponents claim, can disrupt sleep and cause headaches, fatigue, inability to concentrate and dizziness.

The 100-member Families for Safe Meters contends that EWEB should not invest in a technology that could be harmful in the long run. They cite a World Health Organization report that found that exposure to radio frequencies may increase a person’s risk of developing cancer.

“There’s no safe level of radiation,” member Neil Hunter said. She, like many of the group’s members, avoids using cell phones or wireless Internet networks that emit radio frequencies.

Paul Dart, a Eugene physician, last month presented to EWEB commissioners an 85-page report he completed with other doctors. The report concluded that excessive exposure to radio frequency can cause headaches, fatigue and insomnia.

Dart projected that between 3 percent and 5 percent of Eugene’s population — or 4,700 people — may experience electromagnetic hypersensitivity. He recommended that EWEB consider a technology that emits a minimal amount of radio waves.

“Don’t use (radio frequencies) when you don’t have to,” the report said. “Go hard-wired whenever it is feasible to do so.”

EWEB officials point to a 2011 study from the California Council on Science and Technology that found the meters release less radio frequency than cell phones.

The report also found that distance from the source drastically decreases a person’s risk of radiation from wireless devices.

Armstead said people would have to have their head against a smart meter for years to receive the same amount of radio frequency as a 30-minute cell phone call.

Kathy Ging, an organizer with Families for Safe Meters, said she’s also concerned about privacy issues related to the “smart grid” and smart meters. She and other members of the group say EWEB would be able to monitor when people are home and what they may be doing by reading the smart meter data.

Turning the nation’s grid into a wireless network, Ging said, also could increase the risk of a cyber-attack and massive power outages.

“People can hack anything these days,” Ging said.

Lane Electric Cooperative, which serves 10,000 people in rural Lane County, installed smart meters in 2006. So far, customer feedback has been positive, said spokesman Dave D’Avanzo, especially regarding privacy.

“Before (smart meters), we’d have customers calling and saying, ‘Hey, your meter reader is in my backyard. I didn’t know he was coming,’ ” D’Avanzo said.

Customers like Ging, though, say they prefer a human meter reader over a wireless system.

The no-wave option

EWEB promises it ultimately will give customers a choice to opt out of the smart meter system and stick with a conventional meter.

Portland General Electric offers an opt-out program for its 825,000 customers who have smart meters. The company worked with the state Public Utilities Commission to give those who fear radio frequency a choice, a company spokeswoman said. Only six customers have taken that route.

Those who opt out pay $254 for a one-time installation fee and $612 a year for meter reading.

Although the costs of reading meters for EWEB’s opt-out system has not been determined, the utility likely would also charge a monthly meter reading fee.

The opt-out system doesn’t satisfy opponents.

“I’d still be surrounded by neighbors who had them,” Ging said.

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