BY William Boardman
WOODSTOCK — Generally supporting the installation of “Smart Meters” in every Vermont home and business, a five person panel offered a variety of vague reassurances here recently that implementing the so-called Smart Grid would be a good thing for everyone.
But when an audience of about 30 people started peppering the panel with questions about security, privacy, cost, and threats to human and non-human health, the panel had little more to offer beyond those vague reassurances.
Kevin Jones, leader of the Smart Grid project at Vermont Law School, started the evening by describing how the smart grid could lead to his vision of an energy-efficient future in which we all drive electric cars and use much less fossil fuel energy. He touched briefly on cost savings and data security in the new system, but skipped past health issues without expressing an opinion.
Jones acknowledged that people are concerned by the possible impact of increased and cumulative exposure to the electromagnetic radiation (EMR) emitted by smart meters with unknown effects on human DNA, the human nervous system, or cancer production, among other concerns. He said the best way to deal with such concerns was to opt out of having a smart meter in your home or business, and that opting out was simple to do.
State Senator Dick McCormack reinforced the opt-out option, directing attention to the recently enacted legislation (S.214, now in statute as 30 V.S.A. sec. 2811) that:
• requires utilities to provide customers with written notice prior to installation;
• allows a customer to choose not to have a smart meter installed, with no cost to the customer for making that choice;
• allows customers who already have smart meters to have the utility remove them, at no cost to the customer.
CVPS meter engineer Rick Hackett also spoke hopefully of future benefits of the smart grid system that CVPS expects to have installed statewide by the end of 2012. He noted that the company is currently giving customers 45 days notice before installation, while offering reassurance that the privacy of personal data is protected by law and that security of the system would be very tight. He downplayed health concerns, noting that smart meters gave off less EMR than cell phones.
Although Hackett acknowledged that fiber optic cable was his company’s first choice for connecting smart grid substations to the main data center, he suggested that wireless connections to the smart meters was more cost effective and that he was not aware of any smart meters that communicate with fiber. The Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC) “is aggressively collaborating with telecommunications providers to replace that communications medium with fiber optic lines,” according to its CEO David Hallquist in a letter of January 2011.
Attorney James Porter of the Vermont Public Service Board, which is charged with regulating electric utilities to serve the public interest at a profit, noted that proceedings before his agency began more than five years ago, confined mostly to interactions among the identified stakeholders and a few intervenors. Although there has been little opportunity for direct public input, Porter suggested the smart grid would be good for Vermont and would allow customers to take charge.
He referred to a Vermont Dept. of Health study relating to smart meters and noted that the health agency “found everything to be within federal standards.” In response to a question from the audience, he acknowledged that those standards have not been updated since 1986, but added that the standards are reviewed periodically and the feds have seen no need to change them.
He also acknowledged that the 1986 standards are concerned only with thermal effects of EMR, the most familiar form of which is microwave cooking. The quarter-century old federal standards do not assess cellular electric charges, DNA impact, brain tumors, or any other impact besides thermal.
Addressing that point, Senator McCormack acknowledged the limited value of current science relating to smart meters and EMR, saying that “What we got was not persuasive.” That was why, he noted, the legislature did not ban smart meters. The legislature did, however, require the Dept. of Health to submit an updated version of its original report by January 15, 2013.
Near the end of the meeting, CVPS engineer Hackett underscored the uncertainty of the benefits of smart meters. He explained that significant savings will only show up if people accept smart meters, learn the technology, and adapt their behavior to take advantage of it. If the benefits are not there, he said, that will affect future decisions.
Sustainable Woodstock, a local non-profit organization, sponsored the two hour forum, which ended before all the audience questions could be asked.
Local news media did not cover this event, but WCTV8, the local community TV channel, plans to broadcast the full forum in the near future.