Advocacy groups and some citizens feel advanced-feature meters threaten privacy, health, and security.
This piece first appeared in The Vermont Standard.
Central Vermont Public Service (CVPS), the utility that distributes electricity to Woodstock, surrounding towns, and much of central and southern Vermont, has begun a year-long roll out of 180,000 advanced-feature meters to its residential, commercial, and industrial customers. The devices, commonly known as “smart meters,” will automatically detect and report energy usage in close to real-time; they will replace existing meters that are currently read in person every month or so by CVPS employees.
The new smart meters are an element of a plan, financed in part by a $69 million Department of Energy grant to a consortium of the state’s utilities, to upgrade Vermont’s electrical grid, the system that transmits and distributes electricity. CVPS projects that wide-spread use of smart meters will enable substantial short and long term benefits; some advocacy groups and private citizens, however, feel that the new equipment threatens the privacy, health, and security of users.
The current CVPS implementation schedule says that the smart meters will be installed in Reading, West Windsor, and Windsor this spring; Plymouth, Bridgewater, Woodstock, Hartland, Barnard, Pomfret, and parts of Hartford will get them this summer. Changing out the meters should be relatively quick and easy, says CVPS Director of Public Affairs Steve Costello, and will require turning off power for only a few minutes. Customers can decline the new device, but those who do decide to stay with their existing manually-read meters may be subject, beginning in spring 2013, to a monthly meter reading fee.
“Right now we drive literally thousands of miles every day to read meters. We are spewing fumes into the atmosphere and taking time to do a service that could be done remotely,” Costello says, “as technology improves, we want to provide the most efficient and best service for customers.”
Because CVPS is a regulated utility, with return to investors capped, and with rates based on costs of service that are vetted by Vermont’s Public Service Board and Public Service Department, net savings from more efficient operations generally flow to ratepayers.
Costello adds that the benefit of the new meters goes beyond just the immediate labor and gasoline savings. Customers will be able to get information about how much energy they are using and when. That feedback, along with new rate choices, will allow users to evaluate their consumption patterns and figure out how to save money. Now, most residential customers pay for their energy based on a single, flat rate for the total kilowatt-hours they’ve used between monthly readings. With smart meters that allow CVPS to determine day of week and time of day usage, and to subsequently develop and offer differentiated rate plans, customers will be able, for example, to choose to run their clothes dryers or dish washers during off peak hours to get savings from lower rates.
And because the smart meters CVPS has chosen contain the electronics and software protocols to communicate in what’s called a home area network (HAN), at some point, customers may opt to set-up their meters to automatically manage compatible appliances, like HAN-equipped water heaters, or ask CVPS to do that for them. “That’s not something we will be doing in the early years,” says Costello, “There may be a time when [some customers] want us to control, say, their air conditioners, but no one has to do anything differently if they don’t want to. This program is all about choice.”
CVPS projects that installation of the smart meters will also help improve sizing, management, and maintenance of its overall electrical grid. Leveling out demand for energy, for example, reduces the need for system capacity and cuts down on peak stresses, which translates to savings from improved reliability and longer equipment life. And the new meters should also facilitate development and use of decentralized generating systems, like small, privately owned solar farms. “This will help that trend,” Costello says, “smart meters are going to be a big tool to help us bring more and more small scale and renewable generation onto the grid.”
In all, CVPS expects that use of smart meters will result in large and small benefits in a number of areas related to a more efficient grid.
The plan for the new meters and supporting systems has been under consideration in Vermont for a number of years. Electric utilities must bring all projects that impact rates or quality of service to the three-member quasi-judicial Public Service Board (PSB) for approval; the Public Service Department also reviews the proposals and is charged with representing the public interest in proceedings before the Board. In April 2007, the PSB issued an order authorizing CVPS and others to examine deployment and use of smart meters in the state. A consortium of the Vermont’s utilities, including CVPS, in 2009 applied for and received a United States Department of Energy grant to reimburse half the estimated cost of a state-wide smart meter program. In the meantime, CVPS presented implementation plans, cost-benefit analyses, and various clarifications in public filings and hearings before the board. In August 2010, the PSB authorized CVPS to proceed.
However, not all Vermonters view the plans of CVPS and other utilities, to collect, store, and analyze large amounts of customer data as a good thing.
“Increasingly, because so much information now is being gathered and aggregated, digital databases are of great interest to law enforcement and commercial interests,” says Allen Gilbert of the Vermont Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “we want to make sure that the data is protected from police just fishing for information.”
For example, some have suggested that police might look at energy usage to track down illegal marijuana growing operations.
CVPS’s Costello adds that the utility will continue to protect customers’ personal information, just as they have for decades. And, he says, CVPS’s ability to look into homes will be limited. “People claim that we are going to know when you are washing your dishes or what appliances you are using,” he says, “all we will be able to know is how much energy you are using and when.” CVPS is required, however, to share customer information and usage data with Efficiency Vermont, the rate-payer funded initiative created by the Legislature in 1999 to help residents and businesses save money, reduce energy use and protect the environment.
Also at issue, for many opponents, is the technology that the system will use to automatically report usage. Individual smart meters will communicate with each other and with with “gateway” boxes, installed on existing distribution poles, which will in turn relay data to intermediate devices on transmission poles and at substations. Finally, the information will be routed over a “backhaul” network to a CVPS Data Center. All along the route, except for the last leg, the customer meters and intermediate devices will communicate wirelessly, using radio frequency electromagnetic waves, which some fear may impact human health.
Energy from the low frequency waves, when absorbed by the human body, can heat tissue. Standards set by the Federal Communications Commission limit device emissions to levels that are significantly below the damage-causing threshold.
The Vermont Department of Health, in a February statement, reported that their own measurements of in-use smart meters showed close-in radiation far below the Federal Communications Commission standards, and that measurements from a few feet away detected emissions at or near background levels. Radiation measured at the surface of a transmitting substation-installed antenna, although below allowable limits for occupational exposure, was above the standard established for the general public (public access is not permitted in substations). Measured radiation, however, diminished with distance, and at twelve inches away was below standard, and at three feet had subsided to background levels. “The thermal health effects of radio frequency radiation are well understood, and are the current basis for regulatory exposure limits” the report says, and then concludes, “these limits are sufficient to prevent thermal health effects.”
There is concern about non-thermal impacts as well. Some people report headaches, fatigue, and irritability that they attribute to exposure to electromagnetic waves; some studies have theorized that absorption of the waves disrupts communication between human cells. Critics complain that the smart meters and their supporting systems contribute to growing electromagnetic pollution caused by the conglomeration of cellular telephones and towers, wireless computer networks, microwave ovens, televisions and other devices that generate radio frequency waves.
“After an extensive review of the scientific literature available to date,” the Department of Health’s February report concludes that “non-thermal health effects have been widely studied, but are still theoretical and have not been recognized by experts as a basis for changing regulatory exposure limits.”
The Vermont Department of Health says their measurements confirm that smart meters emit substantially less radiation than cellular telephones.
Opponents of the smart meter plan also say that the choice of wireless communication between customer meters and CVPS transmission devices makes the system more vulnerable to hackers who might be interested in stealing customer data. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Federal agency charged with coordinating development of protocols and standards for smart grid devices and systems, acknowledges that the stepped up flow of information may expand “the potential for compromises of data confidentiality and breaches of customer privacy.” For example, interlopers might be able, says NIST in their three volume Guidelines for Smart Grid Cyber Security, to deduce if a residence is occupied or vacant, or, with libraries of common usage patterns, infer what appliances are being used and when.
The Department of Public Service’s Porter points out that as part of their application for the Department of Energy grant, all participating Vermont utilities had to have rigorous cyber security plans; their agreement with the the state’s Public Service Board also requires that the utilities comply with all Federal mandates and continuously incorporate relevant industry standards and best practices. The actual plans that were developed are not in the public record, for security reasons, but utilities are required to annually report, to both the Public Service Board and Department, attacks and attempted breaches, outcomes, and plans to address problems.
Advocacy groups like Wake Up, Opt Out and the Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR) Policy Institute have issued white papers and press releases detailing their objections to the impending deployment of the wireless meters. Jesse Mayhew, Campaign Manager for Wake Up, Opt Out says that since January, that organization has been running ads highlighting concerns about the meters on a half dozen or so radio stations in the Rutland and Bennington areas and in print ads in several newspapers. The Vermont public has not been made adequately aware of the issues associated with wireless smart meters, says Mayhew, and the objective of Wake Up Opt Out is to “have Vermonters decide for themselves if the smart meters are worth the liabilities.” He says that the group’s funding comes concerned Vermonters, but that he can’t reveal who or how many.
Last week, voters in four Vermont towns expressed their displeasure with CVPS’s plan. According the Rutland Herald and the Bennington Banner, town meeting day voters in Manchester, Dorset, and Sandgate polled in favor of non-binding measures to oppose the meters; in Bennington, voters favored a non-binding resolution for a one-year moratorium on installation.
In early January, Senator Robert Hartwell of Bennington introduced legislation, Bill S.214, that, if passed, would require Vermont utilities to obtain a customer’s written permission before installing a wireless smart meter, and to offer a hard-wired meter choice at no additional cost. The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Finance.
CVPS, though, says that the wireless meters make more sense, now and in the future, than the hard-wired alternative. “They provide more bandwidth for faster and more information to move on the system now,” says spokesperson Costello. Wired smart meters would require new substation equipment that is relatively difficult and costly to maintain. And, he adds, because the industry is investing heavily in wireless research and development, there will be more innovative applications developed for wireless technology over the long term.
“We believe the science from all levels of government and peer-reviewed studies shows no risk from these meters,” he says.
Under the terms and conditions of their Department of Energy grant, CVPS and other Vermont electric utilities must complete installation of the smart meters by April of 2013 to receive reimbursement.