By NICOLE MACON
WASHINGTON—Smart meters have been heralded as way to make utilities more efficient and allow ratepayers to save energy, but some customers are concerned about the safety and privacy of the devices. Maryland's utility regulators will allow customers to continue to opt out of the electric smart meter program while they collect information about the costs of alternatives.
The Maryland Public Service Commission recently decided to extend a temporary order allowing customers to reject installation of a smart meter. The PSC made the decision despite the fact that there is no strong evidence that radio frequency radiation from electric smart meters poses a safety risk, as critics have charged. The commission continued its order while it determines whether to allow customers to keep an analog meter or to provide a smart meter that emits little to no radio frequency radiation.
Maryland utility companies have until July 1 to submit proposals on the cost of allowing customers to keep an analog meter versus a radio frequency-free meter and how the companies will recoup the costs.
Residents like Jonathan Libber, president of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness and a retired environmental attorney, are concerned that the radio frequency radiation generated from smart meters can cause "serious health problems."
"No one has ever tested any smart meter for health effects," Libber said. But the PSC has already heard testimony from Peter A. Valberg, principal of environmental health at the environmental consulting firm Gradient, who said the radio frequency levels of smart meters are not a health risk.
"For smart meters, the RF levels are far below health-protective standards and guidelines developed for public exposure to RF," Valberg said. The radio frequency radiation from a wireless router or a laptop computer is 150 times greater than a smart meter, and a cell phone emits 50,000 times more radio frequency, according to a Baltimore Gas and Electric graphic on its website.
There have been some issues with smart meters overheating and causing fires in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Electric Co. temporarily suspended its smart meter program after 35 of them overheated, resulting in two incidents of property damage beyond the area surrounding the meter, according to PECO Senior Communications Specialist Liz Williamson.
PECO resumed installing smart meters after switching its supplier from Sensus to Landis and Gyr, one of the suppliers that both PEPCO and BGE use. Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative installed 9,000 Sensus smart meters as part of its pilot program. SMECO will need the commission's approval for its long-term plan to install smart meters.
Both PEPCO and BGE have received federal funds to support their smart meter initiatives as part of a wider program to update their power grids. PEPCO received $68.5 million, or about half of the funds needed for smart meters, according to PEPCO spokesman Marcus Beal.
BGE received a $200 million grant from the Department of Energy. The total cost for the entire program is about $482 million, according to BGE Corporate Communications Officer Rhea Lewis Marshall.
Smart meters allow utility companies to track customers who have lost power, which would allow companies to be "more efficient with restoration activity," according to Beal. The smart meters send signals to utility companies about the customer's energy usage and would eliminate the need for meter readers.
BGE is working to train its meter readers into different roles in the company, such as utility technicians who provide support in the field like tree trimming and network assistance. Meter readers have also been trained for roles in BGE's contact center, according to Marshall.
There are also concerns about the privacy of the electricity usage data that smart meters collect. Unlike analog or wireless meters, smart meters can track energy usage by the hour and throughout the day so that customers can work with utility companies to reduce energy usage, according to Beal.
The technology in the devices will allow utility companies to "know the most intimate details of our lives," according to Libber.
"The (smart) meter is doing the same job meters have always done but in a more efficient way," Marshall said. BGE provides an energy management tool to its customers with smart meters so they can access more detailed information about their energy usage. Of the 150,000 BGE customers who have access to this tool, only about a third use it.
Maryland Delegate Glen Glass, R-Aberdeen, has introduced legislation to allow customers to opt out of smart meters at no extra charge. This is the second time Glass has sponsored legislation against smart meters, but he is confident that he will be successful this year because he said more delegates are aware of the issue.
"It's not right to charge people for something they don't want or need," Glass said. The exact amount of those charges are still being assessed, utility companies said, and will be submitted to the commission by the July 1 deadline.
About 1,000 PEPCO customers in Maryland have decided to keep an analog meter, about 1 percent of the company's customers in Maryland. At BGE, about 3 percent of customers have asked to defer smart meter installation.
Health, Privacy Concerns Hover Over SMECO Plan for Smart Meters, July 4, 2012