The new electric meters that PECO is installing on the outside of homes in Somerton, Bustleton and other Northeast neighborhoods are causing a stir this summer among some residents who are afraid they emit unsafe radiation and give the utility a Big Brother view of what is going on inside their homes.
The concern about the “smart” meters surfaced publicly at civic association meetings, where residents have heatedly complained about them, and in a handful of letters to the editor published in the Northeast Times.
Amid the ruckus, one thing is clear: If you tell PECO that you don’t want to change from the regular meter to a smart meter, you’ll need to stock up on candles and flashlight batteries. Under state law, the utility can shut off your power.
In a June 13 letter to the Northeast Times, Bustleton resident Myles Gordon said the meters raised concerns about memory loss, dizziness, nausea and insomnia. Gordon, a former vice president of the Greater Bustleton Civic League, said he is refusing to allow a smart meter to be installed at his home, and has filed a complaint with the Public Utility Commission.
During an interview on Wednesday, Gordon said he received a letter from PECO this spring stating that his existing meter would be switched to a smart meter, and he hadn’t known anything about the new technology. He said he heard retired firefighter Earl Montebello speak about what he regarded as the health risks from the smart meters during the May civic league meeting, and Gordon decided he didn’t want one.
“I hope I’m wrong …,” Gordon said, “but I’m absolutely sure this is dangerous to human beings.”
PECO spokeswoman Catherine Engel Menendez said in a phone interview that the meters are safe. Shari Williams, a spokeswoman for the PUC, the state government body that oversees PECO, also declared the meters to be safe.
The radio-frequency energy, or RF, emitted from smart meters is measured in milliwatts. According to PECO, not only is a smart meter’s RF lower than that from a microwave oven, it’s also lower than meters the utility is replacing.
The Federal Communications Commission limits exposure to RF at 1 milliwatt per square centimeter, Engel Menendez wrote in an e-mail to the Northeast Times. “The RF level of the [smart] meter is 0.00037 milliwatt per square centimeter, while a cordless phone is 0.12 milliwatt per square centimeter,” she said.
PECO’s current meters transmit readings about every five minutes, she added. PECO’s new meters will transmit only for less than a second every 90 minutes.
Some residents, though, are convinced the smart meters pose health risks.
Montebello, interviewed on Wednesday, said the meters have been problems everywhere they were installed. “People have gotten sick,” he said. Rhawnhurst resident Frank Yost, in a June 20 letter to the paper, said the meters were behind people getting sick from electromagnetic radiation.
Remove the fear of health issues and what seems galling to people is that they don’t have a choice, or, in their view, not a very good one. Under state law, PECO is required to remove the old meters, which already transmit usage information to the utility, and replace them with smart meters that are able to receive signals from the utility.
Two pieces of legislation (House Bills 2186 and 2188) under consideration would allow residents to “opt out” of getting the new meters. According to the PUC’s chairman, Robert Powelson, some states have laws that allow that choice. However, in testimony before the House Consumer Affairs Committee in May, Powelson strongly urged lawmakers not to make that option available in Pennsylvania.
In his testimony, the PUC chairman defended the conversion to the new meters. He said:
* Smart meters, also known as AMI, or advanced metering infrastructure, give PECO fuller information about customers’ hourly power consumption by transmitting that info to the utility. Because they employ two-way radio transmissions, the meters allow the utility to remotely disconnect or reconnect power, communicate power outages and restorations and upgrade service as technology grows.
* The meters are required by Act 129, a 2008 law aimed at reducing electric usage. Act 129 requires power companies with more than 100,000 customers to set up AMI plans. All Pennsylvania electric utilities are required to install smart meters within 15 years.
* The hourly power usage information smart meters transmit help power companies and their consumers because that data could be used to offer customers better rate packages.
* The meters help power companies detect outages faster. “With just a few key strokes, operators can determine which customers on a circuit have power and which do not,” Powelson said.
* “The Federal Communications Commission approved the use of smart meters by utilities and said their risk was minimal. Environmental heath experts also say the advanced meters do not pose a serious health risk,” Powelson testified.
PECO is using $200 million in federal funds to pay for the smart meters and their installation, he said. He estimated the utility’s customers would save about $1.5 billion during the life of the smart meter project.
Looking at perceived privacy issues, Powelson said smart meters are not surveillance devices.
Because smart meters transmit information several times a day, Montebello said he worries about his privacy as well as his health. Electric usage is likely to be up when he is home and won when he isn’t, meaning PECO will know when he is either. He doesn’t feel that’s any of the utility’s business, and he has concerns about what would happen if that information falls into unscrupulous hands.
Opt-out laws are in effect in Oregon and California, but they’re costly, Powelson said. For example, in Oregon, Portland General Electric customers must pay a one-time charge of $254 and monthly charge of $51 to cover the costs of meter reading. Few have chosen that option, he said.
Delaware, Texas, Maryland, Arkansas and Ohio power companies have been installing smart meters for several years and customers in those states have no opt-out choices. In Georgia, which had been considering an opt-out law, only 200 of 2.4 million customers inquired about opting out.
Engel Menendez said PECO is spending $600 million on the smart meter project. She said the $200 million in federal funds is the maximum that could be awarded and that only six utilities in the nation got that amount.
Locally, the city’s Department of Public Health and the Fire Department don’t have any concerns about the meters, spokesmen for those departments said last week. A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Medical Society said smart meters have not been an issue for its members.
“It’s something we haven’t looked into,” said Chuck Moran, medical society spokesman.
For one local lawmaker, however, queries have been numerous.
Dan Lodise, aide to state Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-170th dist.), said he received about 100 phone calls over three days last month from people, some “yelling and screaming,” about what they believe are the dangers of smart meters.
Lodise estimated 75 percent of the callers were confused about whether the meters posed health threats, and 25 percent were angry their power could be shut off if they don’t allow the new meters to be installed.
Boyle set up an information session for residents on June 20 at the American Heritage Federal Credit Union. PECO and PUC officials were on hand to answer questions.
“Ensuring that residents have a clear understanding of what PECO has been doing has been my top priority throughout this process,” Boyle stated in an e-mail.
“I don’t know how much of a health issue this is,” Bustleton resident Michael Koff said after the PECO session. He’s bothered that the change is mandatory.
“My main concern is that my back is against the wall,” he said.
Dr. Amy Dean, incoming president of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, said members of her organization have seen patients who experience conditions like migraines, cardiac arrhythmia and fatigue when they’ve been exposed to radio emissions like those that come from smart meters, and that those conditions disappear when the exposure ends.
These patients are relatively small in number, the Michigan doctor of osteopathy said in a phone interview Thursday.
Still, the AAEM’s position is one of caution.
“There needs to be independent, non-industry-driven research on the health effects of smart meters,” Dean said.
At the June meeting of the Greater Bustleton Civic League that followed the PECO session in the same room, Lodise stressed he wasn’t an expert, but said he researched several reports on the meters and what he derived the information he found is the meters aren’t unsafe.
However, he said, several reports he read ended with the caution that the smart meter technology is so new that there have been no long-term studies of the meters’ health impacts.
Somerton Civic Association president Dolores Barbieri said her members don’t seem to be concerned about smart meters. She said she didn’t see many Somerton residents at the June 20 information session.
“It’s not a big deal with us,” she said.
PECO’s own statistics show the majority of its customers have nothing to say on the subject. Engel Menendez said PECO has mailed about 440,000 letters to its city and suburban customers about the meters.
“We have received about 425 inquiries from customers with questions,” she wrote in an e-mail to the newspaper. “We currently have 21 customers insisting they do not want their new advanced meters. This includes all deployment areas, not just Philadelphia.”EndFragment