Friday, December 19, 2014
Arizona settles 'smart' meter debate
Ryan Randazzo, The Republic | azcentral.com 11:20 a.m. MST December 19, 2014
(Photo: Arizona Public Service Co.)
• Utility regulators settled on a fee to charge customers who don't want smart meters.
• APS customers will pay $50 plus $5 a month to refuse smart meters.
Arizona Public Service wants your meter reader to go the way of the milk man and the rotary dial phone. But the wireless technology it is using has at least 20,000 customers up in arms.
The utility's solution? If customers still want someone to come to their house and read their meter in person, they'll have to pay for it.
On Friday, regulators came up with a compromise that left no one happy.
Customers who don't want wireless "smart" meters will have to pay for the privilege: a $50 fee and $5 a month. But the amount is far less than the utility had sought.
About 20,000 APS customers have refused to allow the company to install smart meters on their homes. More than 1.1 million have been installed since the company began phasing out analog meters in 2006.
Smart meters transmit customers' electricity usage to the utility with radio signals, and dozens of opponents spent hours testifying before the Arizona Corporation Commission Friday, hoping to convince the five regulators the meters are unsafe.
"They are microwave weaponry," said Scottsdale resident Floris Freshman, who wore a bicycle helmet covered in tin foil and patterned cloth at the hearing.
Freshman said she suffered a head injury long ago and is extra sensitive to the meters' signals, and the helmet seems to help protect her from the unwanted exposure to radio frequencies.
Smart meter opponents complain of headaches, sleeplessness and other health concerns from the meters, which use wireless signals to transmit data. .
Many said they were concerned that even if they opted to refuse a smart meter, they could not avoid the radio frequencies emitted by their neighbors' meters, not to mention the higher exposure for people in apartments or other dwellings where several meters can be clustered in one location.
The meter opponents brought in an expert, Martin Blank, a retired associate professor from the Columbia University Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics, who has written a book on the subject.
Blank suggested the possible health effects from the meters were not worth the benefits.
"We know a lot about the way these radio frequencies and power signals can activate the DNA," he said. "The very earliest biological materials activated (during tests) were the linings of the cavity that protect our brain."
He said national safety standards that regulate the frequencies such devices can use are focused on avoiding high levels of radio frequencies that can heat and damage cells. But he said much lower levels of exposure can trigger physical changes.
"(It is possible to) get an effect long before you get a temperature change," he said.
APS, SRP and the other utilities across the country use the meters to avoid sending employees to collect meter data. They say they are a safe, efficient way to measure customers' usage and the radio frequencies they use are harmless.
But opponents are distrustful of utilities.
"There are hundreds and hundreds of people who say yes, I'm sick," said Cindy Debac, a smart meter opponent from Scottsdale who said her dog died of cancer six months after one of the devices was installed on her home. "The smart meters need to be banned from our state and not only that but from our country."
She said she can feel when a neighbor's meter is replaced with a smart meter.
She now runs a website, EMFdoctors.com, that sells equipment to monitor radio frequencies and items to shield people from them, including $1,100 bed canopies.
"Don't tell the commission that," she said of her website when she answered her cellphone number listed online. "Do I have a vast interest in this, yeah. Do I have a vast interest in keeping people alive? Yes I do."
APS last year proposed an opt-out fee of $75 up front, plus $30 a month, for customers who prefer to keep their old meters.
But as the number of people who refused the meters increased from about 5,000 to about 20,000, the company recalculated that it would cost about $20 a month to serve those customers with traditional meter readers, thanks to the economy of scale and the fact most of those opposing the meters are clustered in Prescott, Sedona and a few other rural locations.
SRP officials in November 2011 voted to charge customers $20 a month to opt out of using a smart meter, with no initial setup charge. SRP, a government-owned utility, has its own board of directors and is not regulated by the Corporation Commission.
Utilities in California and Nevada charge higher fees than those approved by the Arizona regulators for opting out of smart-meter programs.
Commission Chairman Bob Stump and Commissioner Brenda Burns both suggested a fee of $5 a month would be more appropriate. Commissioner Susan Bitter Smith suggested $20 a month.
Sedona City Councilman Jon Thompson said there should be no opt out fee. About 1,600 Sedona residents refuse the meters.
"Sixteen-hundred is a big number for us," he said. "It should be for APS and this commission as well."
Burns said she is sensitive to opponents' concerns.
"I, too, have questioned why we have so many brain tumors," she told the crowd.
She said she has 10 grandchildren who she thinks of when considering potential health effects of the meters.
"The people at APS have children and grandchildren, too," she said.
When given a notice by the company she would be getting a smart meter on her home, Burns said she called the company and asked to keep her old meter to see how the company handled such requests. Despite the request, APS installed a smart meter on her home anyhow.
"I want you to know I have given them a pretty hard time," she said, adding that she met with the company CEO after that event.
"We have to make sure we are handling customers better than that," she said.
Commissioner Gary Pierce said he, too, is concerned. He said he checked whether his grandchildren slept near smart meters mounted on their homes.
"I suspect everyone up here who is not here to protest smart meters is sitting here thinking about their own health," he said. "This has been a long, hard drive of a debate for me."
He said he was concerned that the cost of reading meters manually for customers who refuse smart meters will be "socialized" and paid by the rest of APS' customers, but voted for the lower fees along with the rest of the commissioners.
"Today's decision is important to have resolved for all of our customers," APS spokeswoman Anna Haberlein said. "As always, we will comply with what the commission has ordered."
Before deciding on the APS fee, the Corporation Commission in August 2013 requested a study by the Arizona Department of Health Services. ADHS released its report in November, determining the meters "are not likely to harm the health of the public."
ADHS reviewed scientific literature from around the world relating to the radio frequencies used by smart meters and worked with the Arizona Radiation Regulatory Agency to test meters to ensure they were operating at the frequencies described by the manufacturers.
Some customers also worry the meters pose a privacy concern because they track electricity use, and others are concerned the meters pose a fire danger. Those two concerns were not addressed by the ADHS report.
Smart-meter critics rejected the study because "not likely to cause harm" did not imply the meters are safe.
"What that means is, they just might cause harm," opponent and Sedona resident Warren Woodward said.
By the numbers
Smart meter fees
20,000: Approximate number of APS customers who have refused smart meters.
$50:One-time fee to be charged to those who want smart meter replaced with analog meter. Those who never upgraded to a smart meter avoid this fee.
$5: Monthly fee they will pay to keep old meters.
$20:Monthly fee Salt River Project charges customers who refuse smart meters. They do not pay a setup charge.
$75:Setup charge for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Southern California Edison in California for customers refusing smart meters, plus $10 a month.
$10:Setup charge for low-income customers of PG&E and SCE who refuse smart meters, plus $5 a month.
$52.86:Setup charge for NV Energy customers in Las Vegas to refuse smart meters, plus $8.82 a month.
Sources: APS, SRP, PG&E, SCE, Nev. Public Utilities Commission