Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 10.6.11

EWEB Smart Meters
Devices safe, goal to not increase rates
By Roger Gray

One of my favorite classes while attending UC-Berkeley covered the history and ethics of science and technology. One of the case studies in that class explored opposition to railroads in the early industrial revolution. The anti-railroad people raised the safety issue about locomotives moving at the “break-neck” speed of 7 mph and how dangerous this would be. Some even claimed railroads were a “device of the devil” and could cause a “concussion of the brain.”

Well, society ultimately decided that railroads are an acceptable risk, compared to the benefits they offer in moving people and materials at low cost. We were able to separate the hysteria from concerns about railroad safety.

Which brings me to some recent articles in EW about the Eugene Water & Electric Board’s plans to install digital meters sometime in late 2012 or 2013 (I say digital because that’s really what they are: They replace the old, spinning-dial mechanical meter). Skepticism is good, because asking good questions brings about good decision making. 

But it doesn’t help the community conversation when one of EW’s staff writers (EW 9/15) and a guest writer (EW 9/22) use fear-mongering terms like “bursts” and “radiation” and “microwaves” when what we’re talking about are meters that simply turn on to transmit data — using very low-strength radio frequencies (similar to FM radios or your home wireless network) — and then turn off a few milliseconds later. There’s no “burst” or “pulse,” but I guess that sounds a lot more scary. Likewise, inaccurate reports that claim everyone will pay $500 for their meter are simply false. No one will see that charge on their bill.

We also have seen some wild claims via email and the internet. One email received by EWEB staff claimed that smart meters were more dangerous to your health than smoking cigarettes. I’ve seen no evidence that digital meters are responsible for killing 300,000 Americans a year (let alone a single person).

Can we just take a deep breath and settle down? Can we step back from the scary talk?

As EWEB moves into its second century of operations, we see big changes on the horizon. One of these changes is what’s commonly called the “smart grid,” which holds enormous promise for doing things like integrating wind and solar power with traditional energy sources, and giving customers the technological tools to manage their own energy consumption. In fact, we may not be able to adequately provide electricity in the future without the smart grid (and meters), because like everything else, the utility industry is moving from an analog model to a digital one. 

The digital meters would record consumption usage hourly, sending a wireless signal back to EWEB. You’d get a bill at the end of the month, just like you do now.

A handful of critics have raised concerns over exposure to radio frequencies (RFs), the cost of a system and how EWEB would use the data it collects.

First, EWEB already collects your consumption data. It’s called “reading your meter” once a month and then sending you a bill. EWEB has never shared customer data with anyone without the customer’s permission or without a court order. And we never will.

Then why collect the data? Well, that’s where you come in. In the months and years after the meters are installed, EWEB expects to roll out programs designed to help you use that data to manage your energy use. All of these programs will be voluntary. You decide when to run your dishwasher or heat your water.

It is true that the meters will transmit data using radio frequencies. And it is true that there have been concerns that RFs in high doses may pose a health risk. Cell phones have been studied for many years, for example.

But RF exposure from smart meters is very low ­ about 1 percent of what a person receives from a cell phone. That drops considerably as you move away from the meter. They also will be transmitting only a fraction of the day. Finally, they use only one-quarter of a watt of power. 

The World Health Organization — perhaps the most credible and independent entity around — has reviewed more than 25,000 studies and reports on RF exposure. While WHO says high-intensity cell phone exposure should still be studied, WHO came to the conclusion that “current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields.”

The current estimate for installing a smart meter system is $27 million to $33 million. But how would we pay for it? EWEB’s elected board  has not made a final decision to deploy a system, or exactly how to pay for it. Management’s current thinking is to purchase and install the meters with a goal of no impact on your rates. This likely would involve using cash reserves and bonds. The bond payment costs would be offset by about $2 million per year in operational savings, mostly in the form of reducing our work force (meter readers).

I would urge EW readers to go to our website and read the very exhaustive, independent California Council on Science and Technology report commissioned by California’s state Legislature, or check out what the Environmental Defense Fund says about the benefits of smart meters (also posted on our website).

Ultimately, it is up to our community and your elected representatives on the utility board to decide. If the community doesn’t see the value and benefits, and does not support their deployment, then we’ll stick with the old meters and our 20th century business model. That’s the beauty and benefit of having a local, citizen-owned utility.

Roger Gray is the Eugene Water & Electric Board’s general manager.