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Vermont and the opt-out provision

Here's a challenge to power industry readers. I'd like to hear reasoned responses.

To date, given the history and the fringe nature of many of the health-impact arguments being made by ratepayers in Pacific Gas & Electric's service territory over smart meters—at least the wireless version, presumably the most common type of deployment—I've largely dismissed those arguments.

In some cases, individuals complaining of illnesses purportedly related to wireless smart meters had not yet had a wireless interval meter installed. In some cases, the claims of essentially instant brain cancer—I exaggerate only lightly here—are simply not credible. Particularly as the smart meter backlash in PG&E's case was part of a continuum in which PG&E was fined for interfering with ballot issues around municipalization by cities in its territories and the citizens fought back. Anger at mistreatment created backlash and backlash found an outlet in claims of health impacts from wireless smart meters.

Also, the fact that only small pockets of backlash have arisen out of 20-plus million meters installed across the country and that today backlash is taking place in Vermont well before any deployments makes me cynical.

Let's be clear: there's no doubt that data privacy and security issues are real, are well-founded and require demonstrable technical and policy solutions—not lip service intended to speed deployments. I've argued that privacy breaches of electricity customer data—regardless of the seeming ubiquity of such breaches in other industries and arenas—might possibly doom grid modernization or severely hamper it. 

I will say, however, that folks in the anti-smart meter crowd in California who've phoned me to press their case have to the person been unable to hold a rational, two-way conversation on the topic and merely direct the fire hose at me. They have not been capable of answering queries into their reasoning. They spew psycho-babble.

Enter Matt Levin, outreach and development director for Vermonters for a Clean Environment. The VCE is dedicated to ensuring that Vermont citizens have knowledge of and access to public deliberations by regulatory and other agencies impacting them.

I had a fruitful exchange of views on Friday with Levin and he was an able proponent for his organization's stance, which officially is to ensure an inexpensive, if not free, hard-wired alternative to a wireless smart meter. I found that reasonable.

Through what he characterized as collegial conversations with two of the state's three largest utilities—Central Vermont Public Service and Green Mountain Power—those two utilities now offer an opt-out option that leaves the analog meter in place and charges $10 per month to cover manual meter reading. Those two utilities are set to begin their smart meter deployments any day now. (Thanks to Todd Kowalczyk, CVPS SmartPower program manager, who pointed out that CVPS does not offer a hard-wired alternative to interval meters, merely the manual read of legacy meters.)

Levin was cagey in that he said VCE will continue to advocate a hard-wired alternative for all, yet he will not say that VCE is working to someday have the wireless meters removed and replaced by hard-wired meters. You can speculate on that distinction.

Although Levin was gracious, patient, intelligent, articulate and dedicated to a respectful exchange of views—a primary motivator for me to bring this to your attention—as I played the role of devil's advocate, many of the seeming inconsistencies of other wireless or wired smart meter protestors came to mind.

You can examine several links provided here to get a fuller picture, but in summary here are a few of the issues and Levin's responses. (See Bloomberg Businessweek's "Smart Meters Raise Privacy, Health Concerns in Vermont," or Vermont Public Radio's "Protestors Question Benefits of Smart Meters.")

As Vermonters heard from their utilities that wireless smart meters were coming and they read about concerns elsewhere, they naturally wanted to know more, according to Levin.

Levin argued that with thousands of people testifying that they are experiencing radio-frequency sensitivity, that there must be something to it.

"We believe in anecdotes," he told me. "We believe in science, but we believe in anecdotes. It's not possible that this is all due to hypochondrial madness. So accommodations for those who wish to opt out must be made."

Levin argued that unless scientists could explain the health complaints that arose with wireless meter installations that approved levels of RF exposure were subject to question. He further argued that the electronics industry and the power industry in turn may have influenced federal agencies that conducted tests to establish their ostensibly safe limits.

If RF exposure levels set by the federal government for wireless smart meters are suspect, then aren't the levels set for microwave ovens, cell phones and Wi-Fi routers also suspect? Yes, Levin agreed. Then if those devices are potentially impacting human health, where were the complaints prior to smart meter rollouts and why doesn't VCE campaign against all RF-emitting devices?

Levin argued that those devices are "voluntary," but wireless smart meters presented an "involuntary" intrusion of RF emissions into the home.

If the total "RF load" is causing health impacts, then why pick on smart meters?

"That's not our fight right now," Levin said. "We are concerned that citizens with RF sensitivity who wish to lower their overall RF load have the right to their viewpoint. Electro-sensitivity is real."  

Finally, for an organization that accepts that global warming is caused by human activity—by far the consensus view of scientists worldwide—how could VCE take the strictly minority view on RF standards and health impacts?

Levin repeated the argument that officially safe levels of RF exposure may have been unduly influenced by industry and that, anyway, a hard-wired alternative exists—why not use it?

I pointed out the much greater cost associated with hard-wired solutions and posited that a patchwork system might not work as intended.

"It's up to the utilities to sell this to us," Levin said.

And that's where we left it. I found Levin personally more engaging and admired his ability to counter every argument and have ready answers for many questions, while acknowledging the limits of his own expertise to establish the absolute facts in each case. That's fundamentally different from the folks in California who have been incapable of rational give-and-take with me.

My take?

If Vermont utilities can provide opt-out alternatives and still make their systems work and not place the financial burden of the few onto the many, then it doesn't matter why individuals opt-out. No harm done.

My personal concerns go to data privacy, which has been inadequately addressed technically and in terms of public relations.

I don't buy any of Levin's arguments, but his ability to present his case in a rational manner—again, arguments aside—was noteworthy. I'd suggest it represents the mainstreaming of the rejection of science—at least the kind practiced by government regulators—and the mainstreaming of second-guessing around smart grid. (Levin said he favored a smarter grid, particularly around its use to cut greenhouse gas emissions.)

I repeat my wake-up call to the industry. But I leave it to the industry to tell me what dots it's connecting. Readers, you connect the dots and tell me what you think.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily







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