Oregon Community Talks Policy Ahead of Smart Meter Ramp Up

Though around 4,000 of the devices have been installed by the Eugene Water and Electric Board, roughly a third of those customers have not consented to the use of remote features.

by Christian Hill, The Register-Guard / February 5, 2018
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) — The Eugene Water & Electric Board's commissioners on Tuesday may revise their nearly five-year-old policy on so-called "smart" meters as the utility ramps up its community-wide installation of the sometimes-controversial devices.

With the proposed change, EWEB customers would have to opt out by contacting the utility and asking it to stop the wireless meters at their home or business from sending usage data and receiving instructions, once they're installed over the next eight years.

Under the current opt-in policy, adopted in October 2013, customers must give their permission before EWEB can turn on the meters' communications features.

Those features allow EWEB to connect and disconnect water and electricity remotely, collect electric and water usage data for billing remotely, and detect power outages and water leaks.

The meters are controversial in part because some people consider the radio waves from them to be dangerous to human health, including possibly being carcinogenic.

The meters over the long haul could benefit EWEB's finances, however, by greatly reducing the need for meter readers who drive to each customer each month to collect usage data from their meter.

EWEB has already installed more than 4,000 smart meters, but at about a third of them, the customers have not given their approval for usage of the remote features, so instead, meter readers must visit those properties each month.

The board's discussion and the public's chance to comment Tuesday come as EWEB prepares this year to ramp up its installation of the smart meters in most of its service area.

The utility already has spent millions of dollars to install the antennas and computer systems to collect and store the usage data the meters can send.

The discussion is certain to rekindle opposition by the remote meters' local critics, who cite health, privacy and cost concerns. They showed up in force during the discussion that preceded commissioners' adoption of the current opt-in policy.

Board President John Brown said the utility's recently adopted strategic plan presents arguments on why commissioners could accelerate use of smart meters, but they still need to hear from the public.

"I don't know where we're going to end up," he said. "I'm not counting votes until the hands are up, but (the new direction) may happen."

If commissioners agree to a change, the opt-out policy wouldn't take effect immediately. EWEB would still need to review customer service policies later this year.

EWEB employees began installing smart meters last year after contracting with Sensus USA in May 2015 to purchase the new meters and install the equipment that runs the system.

Commissioners authorized the project at the same time they adopted the opt-in policy.

Through December, EWEB said it spent a total of $7.1 million on the project -- $1.7 million on meter purchases and $5.4 million on completing other elements of the system.

Prior to May 2015, the utility spent about $1 million, primarily for consulting services.

Over the next eight years, under the conversion schedule commissioners adopted last summer, EWEB estimates it will spend nearly $19.5 million on smart electric and water meters. EWEB has a total of 93,000 electric meters and 61,000 water meters.

The utility estimates at the end of that process, it will see a net savings of $1.5 million in annual operating costs as EWEB lays off meter readers. It now has 20 meter readers.

To date, employees have installed 3,900 smart electric meters and 800 smart water meters, focusing on replacing old devices that are failing or are in unsafe areas that put meter readers at risk of injury.

About two-thirds of those meters are transmitting usage data to EWEB, according to the utility's statistics, meaning those customers have opted into the smart-meter usage. The remainder of those new meters need to be read by a staff meter reader.

EWEB General Manager Frank Lawson made clear that with its current opt-in policy, EWEB isn't realizing the full potential of the new technology.

He noted in a report that installing and then activating a smart meter under the opt-in policy is inefficient because employees have to drive around to individual homes rather than swap out entire blocks of homes at one time.

Also, residents often don't return calls to EWEB after smart meters are installed, to authorize EWEB to transmit usage data, requiring more calls and work hours to try to secure the customer's approval.

Lawson said his staff estimated that over the course of the eight-year accelerated deployment of smart meters, the opt-in policy would cost the utility about $600,000 more a year than the alternative. That's because of the staff time and fuel costs to seek the authorization and then have employees drive to individual homes a second time to activate the devices for remote usage, Lawson said.

The opt-in policy is contrary not only to EWEB's initiative to keep rates down by holding down costs, Lawson said, but also its recently adopted strategic plan that prioritizes quickly restoring power after storms and major disasters and making electric use as efficient as possible.

Currently, EWEB doesn't know if a customer has lost power unless he or she reports it. Smart meters automatically report outages so crews can initiate repairs in less time, the utility said.

In addition, wide distribution of active smart meters would open the door to EWEB adopting in the future "time of use" pricing -- setting different electric rates depending on the time of day, the utility said.

EWEB's current rates are based on how much total electricity a customer uses each month.

The aim of time-of-use pricing is to curb electricity use during the day by charging higher prices in the morning and after work. The resulting customer shift to avoid higher rates would reduce the peak loads that EWEB -- and ultimately customers through higher rates -- pay to buy or produce more power to handle the increased demand at those peak times.

Lawson said the smart meters EWEB has installed so far have proven reliable and accurate.

In addition, the meters have identified water leaks at 68 homes, according to Lawson's report. In two cases, the meters have pinpointed problems with a home's connection to EWEB's grid that utility crews repaired, it said.

But concerns continue to persist about smart meters, which emit radio waves, a type of electromagnetic radiation.

The American Cancer Society cites the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which classified this radiation has "possibly carcinogenic to humans." The organization noted it's possible smart meters could increase the risk of cancer, although it's difficult to quantify the risk.

Critics have also raised concerns about more immediate health effects from electromagnetic hyper­sensitivity that can disrupt sleep and can cause headaches, fatigue, dizziness and an inability to concentrate.

Lawson said he doesn't want to minimize the possibility that certain environmental conditions can cause people to fall ill or feel unwell, and believes some people are sensitive to radio frequencies.

But he said the amount of radio waves the smart meters emit is tiny as they "talk" a few seconds a day at most. And Lawson said EWEB chose a system that minimizes the "talking" as much as possible.

He noted people already are bombarded with radio waves from smartphones, wireless routers and other devices.

"I would ... equate (smart meters) to me driving my go-kart down the L.A. freeway," he said. "There's so much else around it that's just going to drown it out," he said.

Michael Lee, a Eugene resident affiliated with Families for Safe Meters, the local group that objected to the devices in 2013, said the concern is the cumulative effect of this radiation on the human body.

"It's like money in the bank. You keep putting it in and it all adds up, and the argument that we already have a bunch of that stuff is not a good argument to have more. There are critical points where the straw breaks the camel's back," he said.

Critics also have noted an opt-out policy falls short because while they can choose not to have the devices, they can still be impacted by neighbors who opt in.

Lee also said smart meters could be vulnerable to hacking. EWEB said it hired a cybersecurity firm to test the system. The review identified one vulnerability that the utility will fix soon with additional software, according to the staff report.

Lee characterized smart meters as a solution looking for a problem.

"I know that the people would like to have a toy and they love the power of sitting at headquarters and being able to shut off with a button and that sort of thing, and the other utilities have it, but I just don't understand why they want it."

IF YOU GO

What: Eugene Water & Electric Board commissioners will discuss changing its opt-in policy on "smart" meters.

When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Residents can speak to the board for three minutes during the meeting's public input session, which precedes the commissioners' discussion and possible vote.

Where: EWEB Board Room, 500 E. Fourth Ave.

Information: The staff report is available online at http://bit.ly/ewebmeter.

©2018 The Register-Guard (Eugene, Ore.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.