Smart meters spark controversy

WASHINGTON DC-

Millions of homes now have smart meters and if you don’t have one yet, you probably will.

Power companies are swapping out old meters — for newer “smart” versions. The devices allow utilities to read your meter wirelessly without sending a meter reader.

But opposition is growing here and across the country warning of health and safety concerns. Some smart meters have overheated and caught fire.

“I was walking to the seventh tee, when the pro came up and said, ‘Jump in the car. We just got a call. Your house is on fire,” Michael Capetto said.

He lives in Upper Makefield, near Philadelphia, where the utility PECO this past summer reported at least 15 smart meters caught fire or got so hot, the meters melted. Similar fires have been reported in other states too.

In Maryland, Jonathan Libber, an opponent of smart meters, knows of other serious cases of where smart meters overheated.

“They could hear the meter sizzling inside the casing like a piece of bacon,” Libber said describing one such case.

Libber heads the group, Maryland Smart Meter Awareness, and is a former attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency. He warns the fires and overheating should be cause for concern.

“You’ve got safety issues. They’ve been linked to over 900 fires nationwide,” he claims.

The concerns prompted Maryland’s Public Service Commission (PSC) to hold hearings in August. Pepco, at the time, reported 15 cases of overheating; BGE with five cases of smart meters getting too hot, but no fires. The utilities suggested any overheating was not the fault of the meter, but often old wiring and infrastructure in the home’s meter box.

“If the meter is not seated tightly, you can see the separating between the jaws and the blade that can cause some arcing issues there,” described Marcus Beal, a Pepco spokesman.

Both Pepco and BGE do not use the same type of meters that caught fire in the Philadelphia area. After its hearing, Maryland PSC determined the smart meters do not pose an overheating problem.

That’s not the only problem. A congressional report last year raised questions about cybersecurity and privacy. Hackers have already proven in tests that smart meters are vulnerable to attacks on the entire power grid and could lead to massive blackouts. At the very least, the meters, which provide hourly details on your electricity usage, could give a criminal who hacks in enough information to know when you’re not home.

“It’s a phenomenally powerful surveillance device as well as a tremendously powerful radiation emitter,” Libber cautions.

The radiation comes from the radio frequency emitted by the wireless signal. That’s how smart meters transmit data back to the utility through a secure network. Power companies say the levels are well within government regulations.

“Our meters are actually communicating at very low level, very low power, and this is so low, it’s dramatically below cell phones, cordless phones, baby monitors,” said Pepco’s Beal.

The utility, which has customers in the District as well as Montgomery and Prince George’s County in Maryland, says the meters transmit information every four to six hours adding up to mere minutes all day. However, Libber’s group and other opponents have measured burst of radiation coming from the meters every few seconds, not hours. All day, every day. Like cell phones, there remains a raging debate about safety.

Garic Schoen believes his health suffered because of a smart meter. He has multiple sclerosis. Shortly after his smart meter was installed directly below his bedroom window, he claims his health declined.

“I started noticing greater fatigue,” Schoen said. “I began needing assistance when walking in public … The second thing I noticed was difficulty concentrating.”

His medical records confirm the period when his health began to decline occurred shortly after the meter’s installation. After a month of suffering, he got it removed.

“The first thing that happened was my physical symptoms began to improve,” he said. “Within a day, I noticed a change, and within a week, I’d say physically I was back to normal.”

In Maryland, the Public Service Commission ordered a temporary opt out for those who do not want smart meters. That follows several other states that have done the same over health and safety concerns. While the PSC says it has not found any convincing evidence of health risks, the commission acknowledged what it deemed a “good-faith belief on the part of some ratepayers to the contrary.”

So far, only about three percent of BGE customers and about one percent of Pepco customers have chosen to opt out.

“RF is safe. The cybersecurity concerns — we have taken the appropriate measures. Data privacy — we take that seriously. We protect your information,” Beal said assuring customers.

Maryland’s PSC is now deciding whether to make the opt out permanent and charge customers an additional fee to cover the cost. The other option is to mandate smart meters, but with an RF free or reduced RF option.

“I don’t believe they should charge for the exemption,” said Schoen. “I think you should be able to do that with no questions asked or no fee.”

Across the country, 36 million homes already have smart meters, with promises to save money and energy. These smart meters can talk to smart appliances such as a thermostat to adjust the temperature, tell an electric car when to charge during off peak hours or relay information on power outages and restoration instantaneously. But some worry whether all that comes at too high a cost.

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