Jonathan Libber likes his analog utility meter just fine.
And no amount of debate will convince him that new wireless, digital "smart meters" being installed by Baltimore Gas & Electric and other utilities around the country would help conserve energy, reduce his bill and make service more reliable.
"They are a bad idea," said Libber, 59, president of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness, a citizens group opposed to smart meters. "There has been no demonstrated savings for the regulated ratepayer. That's the first problem. The second problem is that they're potentially very dangerous."
Libber is one of a growing chorus of consumers in Maryland and elsewhere who want nothing to do with the new devices. While utilities tout smart meters as a major step in modernizing the electricity grid, helping consumers to control energy use and save money, opponents worry about potential health effects and privacy and security risks.
States have responded to such concerns in varying ways. In some cases, regulators have ordered utilities to allow customers to say no, provided that they pay extra.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed legislation last week that would prohibit utilities from imposing an opt-out fee. Officials in Santa Cruz County, Calif., extended this year a moratorium on smart meter deployment, a move that is more symbolic than enforceable. And ratepayers in states such as Texas, which do not allow consumers to reject smart meters, are petitioning regulators to reconsider.
In Maryland, the Public Service Commission will hold a hearing Tuesday to examine whether customers of the state's three largest utilities — BGE, Pepco and Delmarva Power and Light — should have a say in the matter.
Maryland Smart Meter Awareness sees an opt-out feature as the second-best thing to a moratorium.
Meanwhile, the Public Service Commission's staff, which makes recommendations to the regulatory body, opposes letting customers opt out because doing so would reduce the project's anticipated operational and cost efficiencies. The Maryland Energy Administration also is against such an option because it would hamper the ability of the smart meter grid to help attain the state's goals of reducing energy consumption by 15 percent by 2015.
BGE began installing smart meters this month, a rollout that is expected to take until the end of 2014 to replace 1.3 million analog electric meters with the new advanced devices and update 700,000 gas meters.
BGE officials believe they can sell the new technology to a vast majority of their customers by educating them on its benefits, which include real-time data to help them reduce energy use. The utility would benefit from immediate information about outages and other problems. Meter readings would be done wirelessly, saving the utility money because it would no longer need meter readers.
BGE wants customers who choose to opt out to bear the cost of maintaining an analog meter system, which the industry likens to a rotary phone.
In California, where the state's three utilities have nearly completed installing tens of millions of smart meters, energy regulators recently approved a fee structure charging customers a $75 initial fee and a $10 monthly charge to keep analog meters. Regulators said the costs were subject to a more comprehensive investigation into expenses associated with offering an opt-out choice.
"The issue is, if a customer wants to opt out ... that causes costs to go up for other customers," said Mark D. Case, BGE's vice president of strategy and regulatory affairs. "Our perspective has been, if Maryland as a state decides as a policy matter it wants to allow customers to opt out of advanced metering, those higher costs that will be incurred shouldn't be forced onto other customers."
If a fee were imposed, customers would opt out at a rate of 1 percent or less, the utility estimated. Maintaining the analog system for those customers would cost $1.3 million a year. The utility would have to spend about $12 million more to upgrade that system over time.
But smart meter critics such as Jon Blackburn, a software developer from Davidsonville, are not buying BGE's argument.
"Isn't that extortion?" he asked. "Give me a break. It's the cost of doing business."
Blackburn is especially worried about the potential health effects of radio waves emitted by smart meters, whose long-term hazards, critics say, are unknown. The father of two school-age children said he began looking into health concerns after reading about California residents who complained of headaches and chronic fatigue.
"They should put the whole thing on hold until the health concerns are addressed," Blackburn said.
Safety concerns have become the main issue between smart meter supporters and opponents.
Utilities say smart meters pose no risks, noting that the devices emit radio waves well below the exposure limits established by the Federal Communications Commission — and far lower than common devices such as cellphones or baby monitors.
"The key thing about smart meters is, it's in the low end of the spectrum," Case said.
But the effects of prolonged exposure to radio emissions on human health are unclear. Critics point out that there has been no independent scientific testing of smart meters on people living within the upgraded network.
"The industry likes to compare them to cellphones," said Libber, of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness. "The problem with cellphones is that FCC regulations are very old and antiquated."
Short of a moratorium, Libber said giving customers the option to say no to smart meters is "better than nothing at all."
Libber said he also worries about the data BGE would collect about his energy consumption. The utility said it would know only how much energy is being used in a household and not the personal habits of customers.
"If they could prove that smart meters were safe and we could control the privacy issues, I have no problem with putting a smart meter in my house," Libber said.
The Maryland Office of People's Counsel, which represents the interests of residential customers in utility matters, is not advocating an opt-out feature but does not oppose one as long as the program would not have a "detrimental impact on residential ratepayers as a whole," according to a brief filed with state regulators.
Hank Greenberg, state director of AARP Maryland, said the group is hearing from members who want to keep their analog meters.
"There might be a cost involved in that, but it would be helpful if that was an option available to people and they could make their own decisions," he said.
In the aftermath of the California Public Utilities Commission's decision to include an opt-out option that customers of the state's three utilities must pay for, just a small fraction of ratepayers have rejected smart meters.
Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the state's largest utility, said 28,000 out of 6 million electric and gas customers have elected to keep their analog meters.
Of its 1.4 million customers, San Diego Gas & Electric said only 365 ratepayers have opted out.
Southern California Edison was still collecting data, but spokesman David Song said the utility had 28,000 on a list of customers interested in opting out. The utility has 4.9 million customers.
Smart meter opt out
What: The Maryland Public Service Commission is considering whether to require the state's major utilities to offer customers a choice to opt out of receiving smart meters.
Why: Some oppose the digital, wireless devices — intended to save money by helping customers control energy use — because of concerns about health, privacy and security.
When: The PSC is scheduled to hold a hearing at 10 a.m. Tuesday.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun