PUD General Manager Doug Nass, right, speaks before a packed commissioners room last Monday. (Michael Dashiell/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

PUD General Manager Doug Nass, right, speaks before a packed commissioners room last Monday. (Michael Dashiell/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

Clallam PUD smart meters project meeting draws a crowd, concern

Dozens turn out to hear presentation and voice opinions

CARLSBORG — Snowy, icy roads hardly kept a crowd from voicing concerns about the Clallam Public Utility District’s advanced metering infrastructure program recently.

Filling the PUD commissioners boardroom last Monday, about 75 residents listened to a presentation regarding the background, costs and benefits of a five-year, $3.75 million smart meter program already approved by the board, before they criticized the utility district’s smart meter policy and communication while expressing apprehension regarding the safety of smart meters that emit low-level electromagnetic radiation.

Because of inclement weather prior to Clallam County PUD’s two scheduled public workshops last Monday, PUD officials had added another workshop for today.

However, that was postponed Sunday due to more winter weather in the forecast, according to PUD Communication Manager Nicole Clark. That workshop was to be rescheduled after weather forecasts solidified further.

From 2019-23, the utility will install 22,000 smart-meters on homes and businesses starting with Neah Bay and Sequim and ending, in 2023, in the area around Port Angeles, PUD Assistant Manager John Purvis said at a previous meeting.

The idea is to transition about two-thirds of the utility district’s users from conventional meters to two-way meters. The remaining 12,000 meters are one-way RF devices that also emit radiation but are read by “drive-by” meter readers without PUD employees exiting their vehicles.

Those meters can be replaced after 2023, Purvis said.

Purvis and PUD General Manager Doug Nass said the benefits of two-way smart meters are plentiful. The new meters save the PUD money — to the tune of about $300,000 annually — while reducing outage times by letting the PUD know who has lost power rather than waiting to hear from customers. Meter-reading staff would be reduced to three, also providing savings.

Similar smart meter proposals in Port Angeles and Jefferson County were dropped — in part by ratepayers’ opposition.

Purvis said the PUD expects smart meters to last as long as 15 years — a claim some in last Monday’s audience disputed — and the entire system could save the utility district about $7.3 million over the 15-year life span of the first set of new meters.

“We’re going to do this gradually, over five years; we’re not going to jump in with both feet,” Purvis said.

Purvis said costs of smart meters has lowered and that the industry seems to be going to a two-way RF model.

“I personally was against this up until 2017; the calculus has changed,” he said.

The first of those 22,000 smart meters were ordered in January for installation beginning in the Sequim area after commissioners unanimously approved the purchase at their Jan. 14 meeting.

Following a PUD meeting Jan. 28 that saw about 40 residents turn out to voice concerns, PUD officials slated two meetings for Feb. 4 and despite inclement weather they turned out in droves.

Some residents expressed doubt that the 15-year smart meter life span is accurate, that other areas have seen life spans of closer to seven years.

Even if the meters last half of the expected lifetime, Purvis said, it still makes economic sense to pursue the project.

With the growing interest in electric vehicles, Purvis said, the PUD is expecting a bump in electricity usage across the board.

“That’s a big increase, especially since we’ve been flat for the past 10 years,” he said. “We can’t conserve that amount with conventional means.”

PUD staff and commissioners were non-committal about passing any savings the PUD would make on to rate-payers.

“All I can say is, if we don’t do this, in five to 10 years, we will be paying more for electricity,” Purvis said. “This will slow the increase in cost of service.”

RF, opt-out, communication issues

The PUD has an opt-out program, which costs $30 per month.

“Very, very few people have opted out,” Purser said.

Last Monday, PUD commissioners said they are considering a reduced $18 monthly opt out fee for a meter reader to record a ratepayer’s electric usage in person, rather than have information transmitted directly to and from the utility through smart meters.

Rose Marschall asked PUD commissioners to consider lawsuits against PUDs about adding fees, particularly to those who have a sensitivity to radio frequency (RF) radiation.

Two-way RF meters would send information once per day, plus multiple, millisecond-long system checks during the day, and possibly a signal if the meter is going out of service, PUD staff said.

According to the American Cancer Society, the radio frequency waves given off by smart meters are similar to that of a typical cellphone or residential Wi-Fi router and send and receive short messages about 1 percent of the time, (tinyurl.com/PDN-SmartMeters).

In all, a single smart meter would be transmitting back to the PUD about 12.2 minutes annually.

PUD network engineer Shawn Delplain said the district could set up a two-way RF meter to examine radiation levels at a future meeting.

Kia Armstrong of Sequim expressed concerned about the effects of the RF technology along with the perceived lack of public awareness about the project. She said she checked the quarterly newsletters and minutes of PUD meetings and couldn’t find much information about the smart meter proposal.

“As a mother of two children and a local business owner and a farmer, this is news I would appreciate being posted,” Armstrong said.

She criticized the timing of the program’s adoption, both in the quickness of its adoption and time of year [near the holidays].

“I find it hard to believe if you wanted real public input and comments [you would do that],” Armstrong said. “I’m not registering my dissatisfaction. I’m registering my outrage.”

Nass said PUD commissioners board discussed and approved the program along with the annual budget and strategic plan at the end of the year per standard district process.

“This is a business decision,” PUD commissioner Will Purser said. “You are owners of this PUD. You and 35,000 others. We can’t conspire. Everything we do is in public.”

PUD officials noted that a conversation was had about smart meters back in 2014 and that they had answered residents’ concerns then.

“Why did you not invite more customer input between 2014 and 2019?” Herb Senft asked.

“The area has grown greatly in the last five years. I was just surprised public input was not revisited in five years,” Armstrong said. “I don’t care what happened in 2014. This is 2019.”

Said Purvis, “We tried to be as accommodating and sensitive to public concern as possible.”

Many on-hand suggested putting more information in the monthly PUD bill, something the PUD got away from Nass said, to reduce costs.

Sebastian Eggert, a member of the Citizen Advisory Board for Jefferson County PUD, suggested to Clallam commissioners and staff they also form an advisory board.

“I think one of the mistakes that may have happened is the lack of communication,” he said.”The more you get the word out, the less freaking out.”

The Jefferson County PUD in March put on indefinite hold a meter replacement program after entering into a purchase agreement for 19,000 smart meters — and after more than 800 customers signed a petition asking for an analog-meter choice.

PUD meetings are held on the second and fourth Monday every month at 1:30 p.m. at the Carlsborg headquarters.

For more about Clallam County PUD, see www.clallampud.net.

See the PUD’s smart meter presentation at www.clallampud.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Meter-Strategy-Final.pdf.

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