CVPS says Smart meters are safe; others aren’t so sure
By Bruce Edwards
Staff Writer – Published: February 27, 2011 – The Rutland Herald
Robert Young didn’t hesitate when asked about possible health concerns related to the roll-out of his utility’s $61 million SmartPower project.
“Safety first,” said Young, president of Central Vermont Public Service Corp.
Concerns have been raised in California, Maine and elsewhere about similar projects that involve the installation of wireless electric meters on homes and businesses.
The so-called two-way smart meters are touted as a way for electric utility customers to better control their electric usage as well as for utilities to better control peak loads, when power is more expensive, and respond to power outages more quickly and efficiently.
But the wireless meters, which emit a radio frequency, also have raised concerns.
The Maine Public Utility Commission opened an investigation last month into the meters and whether Central Maine Power customers should be able to opt out of using the meters and require the utility to offer a hard-wired alternative. (Records in the case, docket Nos. 2010-345 and 2010-389, can be viewed in the virtual case file a: www.maine.gov/mpuc
“Specifically, this investigation will determine whether CMP’s act or practice of not allowing individual customers to choose not to have a smart meter installed or to otherwise opt out of the program is unreasonable, insufficient or unjustly discriminatory,” the commission wrote in its Jan. 7 order.
But the Maine utility commission also noted in its order that an assessment of various government reports by the state’s Center for Disease Control found no cause for alarm.
“Maine CDC’s review did not indicate any consistent or convincing evidence to support a concern for health effects related to the use of radiofrequency in the range of frequencies and power used by smart meters. They also do not indicate an association of (electromagnetic field) exposure and symptoms that have been described as electromagnetic sensitivity,” the Maine CDC concluded.
[Meanwhile Maine’s Governor LePage and a bi-partisan group of legislators back opt-outs for CMP’s smart meter customers. See: www.theforecaster.net/content/pnms-smartmeters-030211 CMP reports that right now 3,400 people have asked to opt out, representing more than 2 percent of the 135,000 customers who have had meters installed.]
Concerns in Vermont
The new meters are a concern to The EMR Public Policy Institute, which advocates for people sensitive to electromagnetic radiation.
“We think everybody should be able to opt out of the wireless ones,” said Janet Newton, president of the Marshfield-based institute. “There are ways to do it with wired options, and people should have that option.”
Newton and others who share her concerns argue that not enough is known about the effects of the low-level emissions and possible cumulative effects to simply force people to accept the meters in their homes and businesses.
People who suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity claim such devices can cause headaches, fatigue, dizziness and sleeplessness.
In addition, radio emissions from a smart meter could interfere with the operation of implanted medical devices such as pacemakers, cochlear implants and insulin pumps, said Newton, citing a recent 100-page report ( http://sagereports.com/smart-meter-rf ) that assessed the possible health effects of smart meters in California.
The report, “Assessment of Radiofrequency Microwave Radiation Emissions from Smart Meters,” concluded that the meters are likely to exceed Federal Communications Commission emission standards “under widespread conditions.”
The National Institutes of Health puts the number of people with an implanted medical device at 8 percent to 10 percent of the U.S. population, Newton said.
Felix and Olga Kniazev of Wells also have serious reservations about the smart meter technology.
“Our personal concerns are health-related, of course, because the studies that have been done are very mixed,” said Olga Kniazev.
The Kniazevs, who are fighting construction of a VELCO communications tower in town, said CVPS customers should be able to opt out of using the wireless meters.
An industry trade report runs counter to the Sage Associates report.
According to the Electric Power Research Institute report, exposure levels from one type of smart meter, “even at close range, fall substantially below the protective limits set by the Federal Communications Commission for the general public.”
The trade industry report ( www.epri.com) included analysis of smart meter activity from more than 53,000 meters deployed in Southern California and radio frequency measurements in a variety of ambient residential and community settings.
Newton’s group brought its concerns to the attention of the Department of Public Service, the consumer advocate in Vermont utility cases.
“As we do with any major initiative, we would try to reach out to other experts as well,” said Stephen Wark, the deputy commissioner of the department, “and in this case particularly we fully expect to be working with the Health Department.”
Dr. William Irwin, the Health Department’s radiological health chief, cited a California study that indicated there is no clear evidence of adverse health effects from wireless devices. However, Irwin cautioned that the study also said the area requires continued research.
“I think the major reason for that is not the lack of knowledge that we have,” he said, “but it’s more, at least in my opinion, the very large number of people who are exposed.”
For example, he said large numbers of people worldwide are exposed to cell phones, WiFi and other wireless telecommunications devices.
He said that fact by itself “is sufficient basis to have a significant investment in continued research” on possible adverse health effects.
Irwin said the Health Department’s research will rely on the same national and international studies used by Maine and other states.
A study published last year in the International Journal of Epidemiology found there was no increase risk of cancer from cell phone use. The study did suggest “an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure levels” but no causal relationship could be found. The study concluded that “possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation.”
Although the Maine CDC concluded that there is no convincing evidence of health risks associated with the wireless meters, some Maine physicians have expressed concern. One Scarborough doctor wrote to the Maine utilities commission urging caution.
Dr. Stephen Kirsch of Maine Medical Partners said one of his patients in South Portland exhibited “some deleterious effects” that required hospitalization once the smart meters were installed. “I have heard from many citizens who are physically sensitive to non-ionizing radio frequencies,” Kirsch wrote in his Feb. 3 letter on file with the commission. “Further investigation regarding health effects of this technology must be mandated from our regulatory bodies as this technology is rolled out.”
Devices that emit non-ionizing radiation, which includes cell phones, smart meters and similar devices, put out energy levels that are not great enough to cause damage to biological tissue, including DNA, according to the Federal Communications Commission ( www.fcc.gov/oet/rfsafety/), which regulates radio frequencies.
In August, the Public Service Board approved the SmartPower project, noting its benefits, but has yet to take the next step and approve specific wireless metering technology.
“The prospect that consumers across Vermont and New England will be able to respond to price signals and thus reduce peak demand over time is a central benefit of the Smart Grid and (alternative metering infrastructure) specifically,” the board wrote in its Aug. 6 decision.
Green Mountain Power Corp. is aware of the health issues, but it doesn’t appear to be a major concern, said GMP spokeswoman Dotty Schnure.
“… (The) FCC has studied smart meters and associated fields quite extensively and concluded that levels are well below what would have any basis for health concerns,” Schnure wrote in an e-mail.
Young repeated that the company’s first consideration is safety and security.
“We are only going to make decisions on meters, technology, where we have absolute confidence that we are doing the safe and right thing for our customers,” Young said. “It’s the way this company has always acted, and this process will be absolutely no different.”
Young said the opt-out, hard-wired smart meter is a state public policy issue “that is now on the table” for regulators to consider.
“We’re going to think about that internally and come up with a position on that,” Young said. However, he said one of the problems with opting out for customers is that the more people who choose that option, the more benefits of SmartPower for the customer and the utility are reduced.
The cost of the SmartPower project, the largest investment in CVPS history, is being offset with a large chunk of a $69 million Department of Energy grant that was awarded to Vermont last year. The grant is earmarked to fund half the $137 million cost for the state’s 20 utilities to convert 272,000 standard meters to smart meters.
CVPS will receive $31 million of that federal grant to pay for its $61 million SmartPower project.
Young said that raises another issue since the grant was awarded based on the implementation of the wireless metering technology.
From Irwin’s perspective as a state health official, whether an individual’s concerns are real or perceived, utilities would be wise to give customers the choice of opting out.
“If they have an opportunity to select a hard-wired device that can give them some greater comfort,” Irwin said, “if an industry can be mindful, that would be wise.”
Pending PSB approval, CVPS will begin installing the first of 180,000 wireless meters toward the end of this year.
In the interim, it will be rolling out a public education campaign and soliciting feedback from customers.
So far, a survey of the utility’s customers found that 20 percent were solidly in favor of the new technology, 60 percent weren’t aware of smart meters or the term “smart grid,” while a “very small percentage” weren’t interested.
Educating customers to the benefits of SmartPower is critical to its success. CVPS is counting on its customers to manage their electric use, which in turn will lower the utility’s need to buy more expensive power during peak load times. The technology will also save the company money, eliminating the need for meter readers.
In conjunction with the wireless meters, customers will be able to monitor and manage their electric usage online or with a wireless programmable digital display unit in their homes.
The latter option would be the most easily accessible for customers to manage their power usage but is also the most expensive, with current units costing as much as $200. CVPS is considering incentives to lower the cost.
Amanda Beraldi, the head of CVPS’ market research and strategic planning, said the new technology will greatly improve response to power outages.
“Right now when a customer is out of power, we don’t know about it until that customer calls us,” Beraldi said. “This new SmartPower program is going to give us the communication so we’re going to know about the outage, perhaps even before the customer gets home from work and knows they’re out of power.”
Beraldi also said the company will introduce new rate designs, including dynamic pricing so customers can better manage their energy use.
With its SmartPower project, CVPS is also hoping to collaborate with VTel on expanding broadband service in the state.
[Links to references cited in above Rutland Herald article:
http://sagereports.com/smart-meter-rf/ - Assessment of Radiofrequency Microwave Radiation from Smart Meters
Table of Contents
Smart Meter RF Radiation Assessment
Summary of Findings
How They Work
Public Safety Limits
Results, Findings and Conclusions
About this Report
Expert Letters to CCST
[California Council on Science and Technology Report on health effects of Smart Meters ( www.ccst.us) includes a list of independent experts whose input was solicited by CCST, including Sage Associates. However, all of these experts have been informed that their contributions were not included in the CCST Report, nor will their documents be made available to the public on the CCST web site.]
Seletun Scientific Statement
Response to EPRI