Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
A smart meter is shown on a Montpelier home.
MONTPELIER — State officials will hire an expert early this year to help determine whether Vermonters have any reason to fear the wireless “smart meters” being affixed to homes across the state.
A request for proposals issued last month by the Department of Public Service seeks a qualified professional “to conduct a report on health effects related to smart meter radio-frequency emissions.”
James Porter, director of the department’s telecommunications division, said the state has no reason to believe that the emissions pose any danger.
“Based upon earlier testing that was done by the Vermont Department of Health of our wireless smart meters, and the fact that I believe both of the wireless meters selected by our utilities are (Underwriters Laboratories) listed, we certainly believe the emissions are well within federal safety standards,” Porter said.
But those federal safety standards, according to opponents of the smart meter technology, are flawed and outdated. And a small but spirited coalition of concerned citizens convinced lawmakers last session to pass legislation calling for the health study.
“The reason behind having this study is that what’s been done so far is inadequate,” said Sen. Robert Hartwell, a Bennington County Democrat. “We need someone who’s independent of state government, and independent of the special interests, who will do an honest assessment of what the impacts are.”
Portions of the research called for in Act 170 have already been conducted, including independent measurements of smart meter emissions.
“There are certain federal guidelines as to what emissions are acceptable from various radio-frequency producers,” Porter said. “And this will simply show what the emissions are from the meters, and what the applicable federal standards are.”
The department paid the Washington-based Richard Tell Associates $68,000 to perform the work, results of which will be presented to the Legislature next month. Porter said the department had not yet seen the findings.
The second study — the bid deadline is Jan. 18 — seeks an expert to review the growing body of scientific literature on radio-frequency emissions, then submit an update to the Department of Health.
Lawmakers didn’t attach a dollar figure to the study, and the request for proposals doesn’t stipulate a maximum cost. Porter said he has no idea how much the study will cost or whether price will figure in the department’s decision to pick one bidder over another.
The costs, as per legislation, will be billed to Green Mountain Power, the electric utility spearheading the state’s smart-meter installation.
“I think we’re looking for the most qualified firm to do a literature review of the peer-reviewed data that’s out there regarding RF,” Porter said.
Porter said he’s also reached out to the National Academy of Sciences to see whether it has any interest in investing some of its considerable resources into helping Vermont survey the health effects of smart meters.
Janet Newton, founder of the Electromagnetic Radiation Policy Institute in Marshfield, has long questioned the health effects of smart meters.
She said the study’s usefulness will depend on its scope.
Federal standards, Newton said, focus only on the thermal effects of radio-frequency emissions — the degree to which the emissions will raise the body temperature of people nearby. Newton said she’s more concerned about what are known as the non-ionizing effects of the emissions and the extent to which the signals interfere with human physiology.
“All these wireless technologies, what they do is take a signal from one device and send it to another device and make it do something,” Newton said. “What’s ignored is that our bodies send similar signals to make our bodies do things. There’s an assumption that these manmade devices only talk to other manmade devices, not living organisms. And that’s false.”
Porter said he aims to have a study that examines the non-ionizing effects of smart meters as well as the thermal effects.
Porter said the Health Department’s previous study found “the evidence is lacking as to whether there are any harmful (non-ionizing) effects.”
The smart meter initiative, fueled by tens of millions of dollars in federal grants, has been heralded by administration officials and utility executives as a watershed in the state’s energy conservation movement.
Green Mountain Power has installed 192,000 smart meters so far — about 75 percent of all customers.
By giving ratepayers real-time information about how much electricity they’re using and which appliances are responsible for the consumption, utilities say, homeowners will be able to take steps to decrease their energy usage.
Hartwell doesn’t buy it.
“These are there for the utility’s benefit and the utility’s benefit only, and the reasons they’ve given for it being in the interest of the ratepayer are pretty specious, I think,” he said.
Hartwell, who fought successfully last session for an opt-out provision that allows utility customers to reject the smart meter — utilities had proposed a financial penalty for doing do — said he plans to introduce legislation requiring Green Mountain Power to notify ratepayers of the pending study.
GMP spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure said the utility is “confident that our new meters are safe for our customers, and we look forward to the results of the DPS study.”
She said about 9,000 customers have opted out of the new meters.
“People need to know what’s going on as this issue is being researched more,” Hartwell said. “And they need to understand that they have a continuing right to opt out and have the meters removed if they feel like they need to act on new information.”
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