Northeast Times

Mad about meters

— PECO says the new elec­tric 'smart meters' are safe, but some res­id­ents are not con­vinced.

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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.”

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You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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