Power to the people

The power utility and its customers face off over smart meters

At 7 a.m. on Nov. 12, Meri West and her sister, who was visiting from out of town, awoke to a commotion. West went to the kitchen window, and saw a large scorch mark on the side of her neighbor’s house. A smart meter, installed three months ago, had burst into flames, burning her neighbor’s hands, lips and face, she said.

The victim did not respond to this newspaper’s requests for comment, but a knowledgeable third party said that because one of his duties is paying the utility bills for a local government jurisdiction, commenting on the incident might be construed a conflict of interest. However, his name is of little importance to those who oppose smart meters because his injury represents proof that the new digital power meters are dangerous.

Potential fires are one of several public concerns regarding smart meters, resulting in a nationwide effort to oppose the new technology. Smart meters are the digital versions of traditional analog—mechanical—meters that track power usage in a person’s home, and are intended to help strengthen the next phase of the national power grid by allowing consumers to better track energy usage and generate sustainable power back to the grid. Installation of smart meters began in Nevada in late 2010.

According to Reno Fire Department Chief Michael Hernandez, fires caused by smart meters have been rare.

“We’ve had just two reported,” said Hernandez. “Only one was of significance because it caused an injury.”

Fires from smart meters have been attributed to faulty wiring and installation. The chances of a smart meter catching fire are extremely low. The Vancouver Sun, a Canadian newspaper, reported a dozen incidents of smart meter fires this year, which is often used in arguments against smart meters, but also published an article called “Fire concerns over smart meters appear overblown.” In Vancouver, 22 fires out of 11,100 house fires were “related to the meter and distribution panel,” the report states.

Engineering consultant Joseph Tavormina says that generally, a smart meter-related fire could be caused by several factors, including faulty electrical sockets.

“Those get old, they get damaged by water or weather, and then they cause a shorted circuit,” he says. “Any of that could result in a fire.”

Former public utilities commissioner and consumer advocate Tim Hay says that he had immediate concerns when the smart meter program was first announced, although he was not a commissioner at the time of the decisions. His primary concern was that the brand of meters, Sensus, was chosen without looking at other brands.

“I don’t think the PUC put a contract out for a competitive bid,” he says. “They were in a hurry to get the process done because of federal funding that would offset the costs, but other than that, it’s unclear what the process was of selecting the Sensus meters.”

After fires in California and Hawaii, the state PUCs replaced Sensus brand smart meters with Landys+Gyr brand meters, which Hay says have been more reliable, partly due to a glass cover, sturdier than the plastic cover used by Sensus.

“In general, I think the concept of smart meters is a good idea,” Hay says. “But the PUC needs to have a better system to determine if they’ve chosen one that is good for the consumer.”

Since the incident, West has been trying to get in touch with the right people to have her smart meter replaced with the standard analog meter. West was told her smart meter couldn’t be replaced until the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada (PUCN) confirmed an opt-out plan during a hearing on Nov. 27.

“I’m a wreck,” she says. “What if it happened at night while I’m in bed?”

What bothers West the most is the runaround she’s gotten from NV Energy and the PUCN, but she notes that not all of her interactions with NV Energy employees have been negative.

“I was impressed with how nice and honest the guys were,” she says, referring to the NV Energy employees who showed up at the scene of the fire. “But it’s been very frustrating getting any answers or help.”

West has contacted NV Energy multiple times, and is often directed to representatives in Las Vegas. She also called a number listed on the PUCN website, which “was weird, because it refers to NV Energy,” says West.

“We’re not aware of fires started by smart meters,” says Faye Andersen, NV Energy communications manager from Northern Nevada. “We’ve installed 375,000 in Reno and 1.4 million statewide. In order to install a new meter, we might have to turn the power off. Older appliances that don’t have a new surge protector might have old or damaged sockets that could result in a fire.”

Eventually, West got in touch with a PUCN representative, who told West that there were 3,000 people on the opt-out list. On Nov. 27, the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada approved a trial opt-out program, which will start on Dec. 4 and last until Dec. 31, 2016. The trial was a joint application by NV Energy and the Sierra Pacific Power Company to allow for three trial “non-standard metering operation” programs, according to the application document.

According to the PUCN’s webpage about the program, only residential customers can participate in the opt-out program. Those eligible to opt-out will receive non-communicating digital meters, which will be manually read every month and don’t store data. These consumers will have to handle the differences in cost for these services.

But for many, this isn’t enough. Some want to see smart meters—and a smart grid—abolished altogether, claiming that their lives depend on it.

Power surges

Backlash against smart meters began in 2009 in Bakersfield, Calif., after residents began claiming negative health impacts from the meters—most notably, migraines and sickness reportedly caused by radiofrequency (RF) and electromagnetic fields (EMF), two terms that are often misused. According to the World Health Organization, RF is part of the EMF spectrum, and when below 300GHz, is considered non-ionizing and has no effect on the human body. A smart meter emits significantly less than that—around 900MHz—and a standard mobile phone ranges from 450 to 2700MHz.

But a small movement quickly spiraled into national paranoia against the smart grid, aided by a multitude of articles by major media outlets in the U.S and Canada. Health concerns have been the most prevalent reason for opposition, particularly migraines, insomnia, depression, anxiety and other neurological disorders. Many health officials don’t doubt that patients claiming these symptoms are actually experiencing them, but, like past feared technology such as cell phones and antennas, the illnesses are often psychosomatic, perpetuated by pseudo-science and word-of-mouth concerns.

Registered nurse Deirdre Mazzetto didn’t know anything about smart meters when an NV Energy employee showed up to install one on the side of her house in July. Mazzetto and her family rent their Reno home and had moved in not long before the meter was installed.

“I said, ‘OK, sure, install it,’” Mazzetto says. “I’d never had any problem before with the utilities company installing anything that was questionable.”

A couple weeks after installation, Mazzetto says that she started experiencing severe insomnia, which then led to headaches and a ringing in her ears.

“It coincided with the time they installed the smart meter,” she says.

When looking for causes of these symptoms, Mazzetto stumbled across an article about smart meter health concerns, which prompted her to search for additional information. She found dozens of websites and articles and discovered a condition called electrical hypersensitivity (EHS). Mazzetto has not seen a doctor to be officially diagnosed, and says that she diagnosed her symptoms using her medical background as a nurse and similar reports she found on the internet.

“It doesn’t seem like the medical community is on board with electrical hypersensitivity,” she says.

Because the meter is close to Mazzetto’s bedroom, she now sleeps with her daughter on a futon in her living room. She has covered part of her walls with aluminum foil, and has placed a material embedded with silver over the smart meter itself, as several websites suggested, she says. She does not have wireless internet in her home, and keeps her iPhone on airplane mode. Since she has diagnosed herself as having EHS, even talking on the phone results in headaches and discomfort. Mazzetto says that being several feet farther from the meter has improved her sleep, but her symptoms remain. Her daughter has not demonstrated any noticeable symptoms, but “when I’m restless, she gets restless, so it does effect her.”

Mazzetto, along with several other consumers organizing against smart meters, testified at a PUCN public consumer session a few months ago. She has been in touch with activist Mike Hazard, based in Las Vegas. Hazard started a group called NV Energy Stop Smart Meters. Hazard first became aware of smart meter issues after reading a book called Just Say No to Big Brother’s Smart Meters: The Latest in Bio-Hazard Technology by Orlean Koehle, recommended to him at the Behind the Green Mask conference in Santa Rosa last year. The conference is organized by the Post Sustainability Institute, which seeks to eradicate the United Nations Agenda 21, a measure intended to track and reduce human impact on the environment.

Hazard’s smart meter was installed in Feb. 2011, and by August, he had met others in Las Vegas with similar concerns, and a group was formed.

Hazard says that the PUCN trial program is “a good start,” but wants the PUCN to bring analog meters back as an option.

“There’s no reason that in this opt-out proposal, the analog meter wasn’t discussed,” he says. Other states with opt-out programs, including Hawaii, Vermont and California, will re-install consumers’ analog meters.

“Here’s the bottom line: the smart meter movement is not about saving energy or money,” he says. “Maybe for some people it is. Maybe they don’t have the self-discipline to turn their thermostats down. I don’t need that. I can be energy efficient without that modern technology. This is just a big money maker for the energy company. The power company is making a huge profit, a profit that has been enabled by the PUCN.”

Hazard is referring to the costs of the opt-out program. In Southern Nevada, consumers will have to pay $8.14 each month to cover the cost of a meter reader plus a one-time fee of $98.75 for a new analog meter; in Northern Nevada, it will cost $9.25 per month. In addition, residences that opt out will also have to pay a one-time fee of $107.66. Andersen says these fees will cover “associated costs” of the opt-out program, including the cost of a new meter and the time spent manually entering consumers’ data into the system. Hazard says that these are unnecessary fees from which NV Energy will profit.

“I don’t mind a company making profit, but when they are charging for services we already pay for, that’s just wrong,” he says. “We are already paying that meter reader fee, and they are trying to make us out as the bad guys.”

The next step for Hazard will be the petition for reconsideration filed by the Bureau of Consumer Protection, which will request that analog meters be an option for opt-out consumers. NV Energy will have five days to respond to the petition.

Absolute power

NV Energy Stop Smart Meters does not have an official website, so a Google search about the organization pulls up a webpage on the National Toxic Encephalopathy Foundation (NTEF) website. NTEF is a nonprofit which seeks to “provide education and services to the growing segment of the population who are adversely affected by everyday chemicals and toxins in our environment.”

Some of the language used on the NTEF website is off-putting, particularly a “breaking news” story in which a document referred to as “NV Energy’s ‘fair and just’ raping of ratepayers, under the guise of their inflated and erroneous so-called ‘expenses’” is saved as “rapefees.pdf.” Underneath the PDF, the webpage links to a dozen articles from around the web on various topics related to electricity, privacy and terrorism, including a Yahoo.com report titled “Virtual terrorism: Al Queda video calls for ‘electronic jihad’” and a CBS News report, “Black hat hacker can remotely attack insulin pumps and kill people.” There’s no explanation on the website about why these articles are included with other smart meter news, but the common themes of each article are distrust of utility companies, government and technology.

Tavormina says that much of the opposition has to do with the public’s perception of utility companies.

“It’s rooted in the fact that utility companies are natural monopolies, and as a consumer you don’t have a choice,” he says. “You buy power from NV Energy or from nobody, but even if you have solar panels, you still need power.”

Because of this, consumers feel powerless when a program is enacted with which they don’t agree.

“Ninety percent of [the disdain for power companies] is kind of unfair,” he acknowledges. “Ten percent may be fair. As a regulated business, utility companies don’t really operate as for-profit industries. They have to take new programs to the utilities commissions first to justify changes in costs.”

Tavormina notes that it’s difficult for people to take responsibility for their own energy consumption, especially when poor consumption habits result in higher power bills. Ultimately, Tavormina says, the meters are intended to make people aware of how they consume energy and how they can better conserve. There are financial incentives when consumers use energy during off-peak hours, as well as generating their own electricity through alternative resources like solar panels or wind turbines.

Much of what also bothers people, Tavormina says, is that there’s not much regulation about privacy issues in the U.S. The fear is that because a smart meter meticulously tracks data, a hacker could access a power bill and determine when a resident is home based on the resident’s peak electricity consumption. Like the fires, hacking, too, has been a rare occurrence.

According to Hay, the utility companies have a duty to ensure that new technology is safe, affordable and efficient before approving it.

“It comes down to three tiers,” he says. “One is, is this is the best technology to get a bang for buck for consumers? Then, what’s the potential safety hazard with these meters causing fires? And then the third tier is the cybersecurity ones, if they pose a potential threat at indicating whether a house is occupied. There are other general health issues, but there’s some consensus that the health issues are unsupported, somewhat matters of judgment. But in any case, many jurisdictions have said that consumers should have the right to opt out.”

Power play

Now that the PUCN has approved a trial opt-out plan, Mazzetto and West are waiting to hear back about when their smart meters will be replaced. Mazzetto hopes that scientific research continues to investigate the impact of radiofrequency on human health. University of Nevada, Reno engineering professor Indira Chatterjee, whose research involves the bioeffects of electromagnetic fields, agrees that more research from the science community is necessary, but notes that consumers need to also do their own research by seeking out peer-reviewed, empirical studies.

“People need to not use the terms ‘radiofrequency’ and ‘electromagnetic fields’ interchangeably, and it is important for those worried about the meters to look at scientific research before jumping to conclusions,” she said.

Smart meter opposition has been chastised by the scientific skeptic community, and has been referred to as paranoia caused by conspiracy theorists. It’s also been linked to Tea Party groups, including the U.S. Patriots, who have held lectures on the dangers of smart meters and how the public can “uphold freedoms.” Some message boards encourage homeowners to keep weapons on hand to threaten utility company employees.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote a report in March called “Smart meters spawn conspiracy talk: They know what you’re watching on TV!” The report looked at Nevada’s efforts against smart meters, comparing it to similar groups who oppose fluoridation of water. The opposition has also been linked to wind turbine syndrome, in which residents living near a wind turbine claim to have the same conditions as smart meter victims, including migraines, high blood pressure, anxiety and insomnia.

Besides the tension the smart meters have created between consumers and utility companies, the issue has also divided much of the environmental movement. While smart meter opposition, including the frequently cited website StopSmartMeters.org, relate the issue to environmentalism, others disagree, highlighting the necessity of an efficient smart grid. Tavormina says it’s a necessary step to make electricity safer, more sustainable, less expensive and more reliable.

“The whole idea of our grid is an open loop system—we have places where power is produced and wires that deliver power to users, but there’s very little feedback about what’s going on at the end of the line,” he says. “Having more data about what’s happening at all times helps to prevent disasters like a power outage or a fire. It’s time for us to upgrade the grid.”