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Trying to change minds in smart-meter debate

RadioMedia IndustryJustice System

Concerns about utility smart meters are frequently dismissed as tinfoil-hat paranoia. But it's not so easy to dismiss Jonathan Libber.

The Baltimore man delivers his arguments against the wireless devices in the calm manner of an attorney. He is, in fact, an attorney — retired from the Environmental Protection Agency, a point he notes when he reminds people of the country's spotty record of figuring out environmental hazards before they're widespread.

As the force behind Maryland's smart-meter opposition, Libber is spending the early part of retirement in a way he'd never envisioned. He hadn't even heard of the devices until 2011. Now, as president of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness, he's burning 30 to 40 hours a week answering anxious questions, writing testimony and speaking to community groups — pro bono.

It's had some effect. Maryland's Public Service Commission, which said it hadn't found convincing evidence of risks to customers regarding health and other issues, nevertheless decided in January that "the public interest requires" an alternative to standard smart meters if a customer requests it.

Commissioners are pondering what sort, warning that an alternative would come with an extra charge. A committee in the House of Delegates, asked by Libber's group to mandate a free opt-out, recently decided to study the issue over the summer after killing a similar bill last year.

For now, customers can defer without a fee by writing their utility. More are doing so than the 1 percent that companies expected. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. says nearly 3 percent of customers have deferred in the communities where installation is under way or complete.

"The fact that 3 percent are opting out without any kind of information at all, except for what they're probably hearing from us on the website, is quite astonishing," Libber said.

Meters that communicate wirelessly with utilities are replacing analog meters by the millions nationwide, pitched as a way to cut operational costs, give utilities instant information about outages and offer customers near-real-time data about their energy use so they potentially can lower their bills.

The loosely organized opposition to smart meters is varied, and so are the complaints. Tea partiers and Green Partiers, liberal Californians and conservative Texans have argued that the meters can cause health problems, or can be hacked, or give utilities too much information about customers' daily lives, or can overheat and cause fires, or underdeliver on financial benefits. Or all of the above.

The attorneys general of Connecticut, Illinois and Michigan are among the skeptics — based on cost. All three have said in the past few years that smart-meter plans in their states do not clearly benefit consumers, given the multimillion-dollar installation costs.

BGE, which began installing smart meters last year and expects to finish in 2014, wasn't permitted to start charging customers upfront. It will have to ask later for reimbursement of the $282 million not covered by a federal grant. BGE says it also will pass along operational savings, which it estimates at $2.5 billion over 10 years.

"We will be held to that commitment," said Robert L. Gould, a BGE spokesman.

Change of heart

Libber, 59, came to the cause after 31 years at the EPA, where he redesigned how environmental-violation penalties are calculated. Shortly after he retired at the end of 2010, his neighbor, Kate Kheel — concerned about impending smart-meter installations — asked for his help with the local opposition.

There wasn't much to it then — just a few people pointing to concerns from the West Coast.

"I initially was not that impressed," said Libber, sitting in his home in the Cheswolde neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore. "I thought, 'Ah, some kind of stuff from California. Whatever.' "

That would have been that, Kheel said, except that a mutual friend insisted they ask again — handing over 100 to 150 pages of articles about smart meters.

"I started reading the information, and I was quite concerned," Libber said.

Kheel called Libber's change of mind a turning point. Afterward, the activists formed Maryland Smart Meter Awareness and raised enough money — about $10,000 — to print yard signs, bumper stickers and other materials. They testified before regulators and the General Assembly, and attracted nearly 500 members.

Kheel, the group's vice president, said Libber brings a dispassionate eye to an emotional issue.

"He presents well to the public," she said. "There are some people in the group who are more upset by this — and angered by it — and we might be more vocal, and he's constantly saying, 'No, first of all, let's not speak irrationally, let's make sure the studies are there.' ... He's helped our image as an organization."

BGE is complimentary, too. Gould called Libber a respectful rival, someone who researches before speaking and is "very thoughtful on the issues."

Of course, Gould added, "we have different opinions of the science and the facts."

Making the case

Last fall, the Greater Timonium Community Council invited BGE to make its case on smart meters. In February, it was Libber's turn.

He told the two dozen people there that smart meters are not certified by product-safety company UL. (BGE says it is seeking such certification.)

He said smart meters give utilities more information about customer energy use, information they could sell. (BGE says it won't and is prohibited by law from doing so, but Libber contends that the language offers wiggle room.)

He talked about hacking. And national security. And the concern that smart meters' radio frequency emissions — radio waves — are harmful to human health.

In the national debate over the devices, the health argument is what most reliably brings out the charges of paranoia.

In cases where radio frequency radiation levels are relatively low, and therefore cannot heat tissue, "the evidence for production of harmful biological effects is ambiguous and unproven," the Federal Communications Commission says.

Still, the U.S. Government Accountability Office recommended last year that the FCC re-evaluate its safety standards for cellphones, which also emit radio waves. And in 2011, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer classified radio frequency emissions as "possibly carcinogenic."

That's a category that includes the insecticide DDT — but also coffee.

Peter A. Valberg — who testified for BGE in the smart-meter case before regulators — is a principal with Gradient Corp., a firm that assesses human health risk. He said smart meters — and radio waves below a certain intensity — are safe. Studies that suggest health damage from radio waves at lower intensities, such as those emitted by consumer wireless devices, couldn't be reproduced by other scientists, he said.

"You turn on your radio, you turn on your television, and you get a signal," said Valberg, a former faculty member at Harvard University's School of Public Health. "You get a signal because your home is saturated with radio waves. ... Our use of radio waves has gone up, I would say, dramatically or exponentially since the 1900s, and yet the health of the United States as measured by almost any statistic has improved."

Allan H. Frey, a semiretired neuroscientist who lives in Potomac, sees it differently. He said radio frequency research is both inadequate and full of inaccuracies. What's clear, he said, is that some frequencies are harmless to humans. But his research in the 1960s, '70s and '80s suggests that others are not. He says there isn't enough information to tell which category cellphones and smart meters fall into.

"Basically, we're in a grand experiment with lots of human subjects," said Frey, a former researcher with the General Electric Advanced Electronics Center at Cornell University. "Hopefully, the companies are using modulations and frequencies that aren't going to be damaging, although there are some hints that there is damage. But we won't know for a while."

Libber said learning about this possibility changed him. He now holds his cellphone away from his head. He turns his Wi-Fi off at night. He's got a sign under his analog meter — in English and Spanish — to make sure it's not replaced.

Libber swayed some residents at the Timonium community meeting. Frank Regan of Lutherville said he was for smart meters after hearing from BGE, but Libber put him on the fence. He called Libber "credible."

"He sounded like he knew what he was talking about," added Joan Mahan of Timonium, noting his EPA background.

Ken Anderson, a painting contractor from Timonium, was unimpressed. He said his research on smart meters turned up a "gallery of wackos" online, and nothing Libber said changed his mind.

"I'm just sitting there thinking, 'Why are you giving us arguments based on fear rather than fact?' " he said afterward. "It was all based on, 'What if this happens? What if that happens?' ... I don't have a problem with smart meters, bottom line. And personally, I think the argument against them is foolish."

Anderson said as much during the meeting, challenging Libber on several points. Libber answered — calm as always.

Some people are convinced that smart meters are safe, Libber said afterward. But he suspects that a lot of people don't know anything about the debate — in some cases on purpose.

"They don't want to have another issue to worry about," he said.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

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