If Vermonters choose not to have new smart meters installed in their houses, they will not have to pay a fee to their utility. That’s because of a bill passed by the Legislature this year.
The state’s utilities are working to establish a new smart grid, using digital technology to monitor electric power usage at all points of the grid. One of the components of the smart grid is the smart meter, which would replace meters that now must be read each month by meter readers. One of the benefits to the utility of the new smart meters is that the utility will be able to read the meters and calculate usage without having to send meter readers around to everyone’s house.
But some power customers have rebelled at the idea of the new meters, which operate with the use of a radio signal. They are concerned that the meters will bombard them with radio waves that, combined with the variety of other radio waves coursing through the environment, will cause health problems. Power customers in Vermont and other states have pushed for the option of refusing the smart meters, and they don’t like having to pay a fee for refusing.
Central Vermont Public Service and Green Mountain Power were planning to charge an opt-out fee of $10 per month. The Public Service Board had already voted to delay imposition of that fee until April next year; the bill passed by the Legislature will delay the fee indefinitely.
The smart meters are part of a $140 million project by the state’s 20 utilities to create a new smart grid. The project has been boosted by a $69 million federal grant. CVPS, the state’s largest utility, plans to spend $63 million, which would include the installation of 180,000 smart meters.
The utility worries that if too many people choose not to participate the effectiveness of the smart grid project might be impaired. But Steve Costello, spokesman for the company, said he was confident most Vermonters would “embrace” the new technology. He listed its benefits, including reducing carbon emissions, improving reliability and the efficiency of the utilities’ response to outages, and helping customers monitor their own power usage and reduce their bills.
Health Commissioner Harry Chen testified to the Legislature that smart meters emit less than 1 percent of the radiation that cellphones do. But consumer advocates worry about the cumulative effect of all the radio frequencies permeating the atmosphere.
It is likely resistance to smart meters comes from two sources. One is the persistent and understandable fear of new technology, particularly one based on an invisible source of energy. Even electricity created worries when it became commonly used. Numerous sources of energy have caused enough concerns that their health effects have been studied closely, including cellphones, high-voltage power lines, wind turbines and, of course, nuclear facilities.
Another cause of uneasiness is the increased prevalence of little-understood illnesses, such as autism and the many varieties of cancer. Combine these two sources of anxiety, and it is understandable why people might be wary of a technology like the smart meter.
Thus, the Legislature decided a fee for opting out of the smart meter would be onerous and punitive. The Legislature’s action is akin to its refusal to narrow the exemption for parents who choose to opt out of vaccinations for their children. In both cases legislators were reluctant to impose coercive measures that would disregard individual health concerns.
Yet in both cases Chen testified persuasively that there was little to worry about — with regard to both vaccinations and smart meters. He is Vermont’s top public health official, and his credibility is considerable. But just to be sure, the new bill directs the Health Department and Public Service Department to conduct an independent study of the possible health effects of smart meters. The study is due next January.
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