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Smart Meters: New Technology to Monitor Electricity Consumption Has Some Skeptical

Electric companies across the state have been rolling out  new technology, installing home meters that monitor consumer use and send that information, automatically, to the company.  Smart meters also allow utilities to turn power on and off from a remote location.  Utilities say these hi-tech meters will help consumers reduce their electric bills, but one elected official is skeptical, and she’s leading a crusade against the devices.

Albemarle County Supervisor Ann Mallek is a retired teacher who helps run the family farm in Whitehall raising organic beef.   She is, by all measures, a well-mannered woman, but lately Mallek is on the warpath, because Dominion Virginia Power wants to put a smart meter on her home.  She’s not sure the radio frequencies used to transmit data are safe, and some of her constituents are also nervous.

“It is a live wifi network that’s pinging out tens of thousands of times a day. One of the people who contacted me said my smart meter is on the outside of my child’s bedroom wall.  I’ve had to move his furniture so that his head is not eight inches away from something that’s emitting non-ionizing radiation.”

And she wonders about privacy - people knowing whether you’re at home, based on your consumption of power. At Dominion, manager Heather Jennings says no one should be concerned about the safety of smart meters.

“The smart meters are regulated by the FCC, and we’re well below those standards.  We’ve looked at exposure limits, and we’re about 32,000 times less than a cell phone.”

And spokesman Rob Richardson says people who have concerns can opt out of the program. 

“We aren’t trying to pull a fast one with customers related to this technology upgrade.  The smart meters are meant to enhance our customers’ ability to manage their own electricity, and if it’s a technology that they don’t want, they have the opportunity to opt out of it.”

Mallek says she did opt out, and the company still tried to install a smart meter.

“The guy showed up, fully intending to put on the meter, even though I had filled out the opt-out form, got hostile when I said, ‘Thank you very much, but I do not want the meter.  Well you’re going to have to have it or else you’re going to have to pay an extra $30 a month.’”

A second member of the county board also reported being told of a penalty for those who wanted to stay with the old technology.  So is there really a charge to opt out?  Richardson says no.

So why was Supervisor told otherwise? 

“We’ve looked into that,” Richardson says.  “We’ve discussed that with the supervisor.  We’ve discussed that with metering.  There was some  information that was not correct that was provided to the customer, and we have called the supervisor to talk with her about that situation, and we regret that it happened.”

But Mallek isn’t buying.

“Sorry, that just doesn’t wash for me.”

And Waldo Jaquith, who heads a Virginia-based non-profit called U.S. Open Data, has another complaint.   Smart meters allow customers to go online and see how much power they’ve been using, but to promote greater conservation, customers could be charged more at times of peak demand and less when demand is slack.  Dominion has about 720 customers taking part in  a demonstration project called the Smart Pricing Plan.

“You could pay as little as 7 cents per kilowatt hour or as much as 51 cents per kilowatt hour depending on the day or time of day, so of course you would not possibly want to run your dishwasher or your clothes dryer at 51 cents per kilowatt hour, but you might want to hold off on running your dishwasher until the rate level dropped to seven cents.”

The company e-mails prices for the following day, but Jaquith says consumers need something else to maximize energy savings -- a file that can be read by inexpensive energy management systems in homes and businesses.  We’ll visit Jaquith’s house and find out how that works in our next report.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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