How smart are 'smart meters'? Enough to stir a ruckus in Port Angeles
By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News
Print This | Email This
Sequim picks its design for the new City Hall and police headquarters -- 12/10/13 -08:57 AM
Look for Santa's Toy and Food Fire Brigade tonight through Friday night in Sequim neighborhoods -- 12/9/13 -11:20 PM
Today's PDN Page 1 . . . and read faster, absorb more -- 12/9/13 -07:04 PM
PENINSULA HOME FUND — A 'hand-up' as a former social worker remakes his life -- 12/9/13 -07:01 PM
Opponents of the new devices told the Port Angeles City Council last week they are worried that the meters' RF energy is harmful to their health.
The group of 65 to 70 people who turned out in opposition to smart meters on Tuesday also raised privacy concerns, saying they fear the devices will be able to collect personal information — something city officials say cannot happen.
Port Angeles' is the only electric utility on the North Olympic Peninsula using smart meters, which allow transmission of data about electricity and water usage to city utility staff and have the capability of regulating electricity to appliances, if residents want that service.
Both the Clallam County Public Utility District — which serves all areas in the county, including Sequim and Forks, that are outside Port Angeles — and the Jefferson County PUD have electricity meters that can be read via radio signals, but they cannot receive information from public utility staff, and so aren't smart meters.
Phil Lusk, Port Angeles deputy director of power and telecommunication systems, estimated that the city's smart meters put out between 0.001 and 0.01 microwatts per square centimeter of RF energy, while cellphones typically produce about 190 microwatts per square centimeter.
The Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, threshold for human exposure is 1,000 microwatts per square centimeter.
The $5.4 million advanced metering infrastructure project will replace the city's roughly 10,500 analog water and electric meters with digital devices, said Craig Fulton, the city's public works and utilities director.
Fulton said the new meters would be more accurate and would allow customers to more easily track their own use, leading to potential energy and waters savings.
Judi Hangartner, 20, a Port Angeles resident who is the chairperson of Smart Awareness, organized the gathering of opposition to smart meters at the council meeting last week.
She said she started Smart Awareness about four months ago, and that it has grown from about 24 people to 150.
“We all expressed our concerns, and then we found out it's more than just me out there who has an issue with it,” Hangartner said.
Hangartner, who said she has personal health problems, began researching smart meters a few years ago and said she found people in other parts of the U.S. who claimed the devices caused sleeping problems, headaches and ringing in the ears, among other health issues.
In 2011, when the city announced plans to install smart meters, Hangartner sent a letter to the city saying city officials did not have permission to install a smart meter on her home.
“I've been fighting this for three years,” she said.
Hangartner and others also are worried the meters will be able to pry into their personal life, such as when they are using their stove or television, be able to control the devices in her home and that the information transmitted via the meters is easily hackable.
Fulton said the meters will transmit only utility usage information and that the wireless signals will be encrypted with security software similar to that used in wireless credit card transactions.
The meters will not be able to tell when homeowners are using individual appliances, Fulton added.
The meters also will not control power to appliances in residents' homes unless people voluntarily sign up for the city's energy management program.
Under this program, called the “Peak Power Project,” residents would agree to have an additional device installed on their water heaters or thermostats that would automatically reduce power to the water heaters and thermostats during peak power-use periods on the city's system, Fulton explained.
So far, 3,100 smart meters have been installed but only 250 smart meters are transmitting.
The transmission is to test software connections between the devices and the city — which have not worked well in the past — before installing the rest of the meters.
Fulton said the meters, once fully operational, will transmit a day's worth of utility usage data for no more than two seconds sometime within the early morning hours.
Some meters will act as “collectors” for the data from other meters, Lusk explained, and may transmit up to 50 seconds per day.
Fulton said installation of the smart meters will be mandatory, though he said city staff are discussing allowing utility customers to “opt-out” of having their analog meters replaced with smart devices.
“That is a policy decision we have to still talk [over] internally,” Fulton said.
City officials agree they should be doing more to address residents' concerns about smart meters.
“[We] have not done a very good job responding effectively to their questions or comments,” Lusk said.
City information has been available on the city's website since the smart meter project began. Fulton said it can now be accessed straight from the city's homepage.
“My role is to push out as much information as I can to the residents of the community,” Fulton said.
Michael Howe, spokesman for the Clallam County PUD, said the utility district has no plans to replace any of its 30,000 electric meters with smart meters.
“It's not in our plans at this time,” Howe said. “And it's not even in our five-year plan, so to speak.”
Jim Parker, general manager of the Jefferson County PUD, said none of the utility's 18,500 meters are smart meters.
The utility has had the radio-read meters since 1999.
Parker said that only recently has he had questions about the RF energy the meters use. Two customers he knows about asked questions, he said.
“It isn't an issue right now, that we know of,” Parker said.
Port Angeles' smart meters will allow residents to track their own energy and water usage on an hourly basis using a secure, Internet-based portal, Lusk said.
“By having more information, they can have more control over how they use it, when they use it and how much they want to pay,” Lusk said.
City officials cite Health Canada, Canada's federal health department, and the Virginia Department of Health as saying that exposure to the amount of RF energy smart meters emit does not pose a public health risk.
Lusk has said he initially had concerns over RF exposure but, following his own research on smart meters and the purchase of a $600 RF measuring device, he became convinced the available scientific evidence points to the safety of smart meters.
Despite what city officials say, Hangartner said the goal of Smart Awareness is to remove all currently installed smart meters from Port Angeles home and stop any further installation.
“I know in my heart that what the city of Port Angeles is doing is not right,” Hangartner said.
“They're not hearing us.”
Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last modified: September 22. 2013 12:55AM