BGE prepares to install smart meters in Harford County

Harford County is set to join the growing list of jurisdictions that will get BGE smart meters, officials from the power company told the County Council Tuesday.

BGE plans to start installation of smart meters, which identify energy consumption in greater detail, in Harford in the first quarter of 2014, Michael Butts, director of BGE's smart meters program, said.

Butts said he knows customers might have concerns about the smart meters and wanted to address those issues "head on."

Nationwide, the installation of smart meters has sparked controversy, with concerns ranging from privacy issues to potential carcinogens from the devices.

Butts said smart meters use radio frequencies which are roughly analogous to those of wireless Internet routers and smartphones. The smart meters operate at 1 watt for a few minutes a day and use the same frequency as garage door openers or baby monitors, he said.

Regarding privacy, he said BGE does not sell customer data for any "monetary gain" and only uses what it collects for its own business operational purposes.

He also said the company hires third-party computer hackers who intentionally look for vulnerabilities in the system as part of an effort to keep the firm's information system secure against real hackers.

About 150,000 smart meters are expected to be installed in the county, which is expected to cost BGE $38 million, Butts said.

Affected customers will each get a postcard two to four weeks in advance of installation.

BGE has been installing the devices in its service area outside Harford County since 2012.

Some people have pointed out fires are believed to have been sparked by smart meter devices elsewhere in the country, but Butts said BGE no fires have resulted from the meters it has installed to date. He said the meters don't cause fires, though it is possible fires are sparked by defects in the boxes into which meters are plugged.

Customers who have concerns have the option of deferring installation until the Maryland Public Service Commission rules on whether it will allow residents to opt out permanently, for an additional charge. The commission is expected to make a ruling on opting out by the end of the year, he said.

BGE has scheduled community meetings on the smart meters at the Bel Air Library for Tuesday, Nov. 19, and at the Kingsville Fire Station the following day, Bonnie Johansen, external affairs manager, said. Both meetings will begin at 6 p.m.

"If we get a large turnout and we need another one, we can certainly do that," Johansen said in addressing whether there would be more public sessions.

Councilman Dion Guthrie asked why residents would be paying for something they are not receiving. Butts responded that when the Public Service Commission approved the new meter system, the intent was for everyone to be moved to the system and for the old meters to be retired.

"Now that we have opt-outs, those customers will have to be read on the old system, so we have to keep around those reading systems," he said.

Since only 3 percent of customers to date have opted to defer the smart meter installation, the Public Service Commission is considering making those electric customers pay to keep the old system, rather than have all of BGE customers end up having to cover the cost of maintaining two meter systems, he said.

Carolyn Hicks, of Joppa, said Thursday she plans to attend the Kingsville meeting because she doesn't think it's fair for a utility company to potentially charge people to keep an existing meter.

She said she has had her meter for 26 years and visited the website Maryland Smart Meter Awareness, which is lobbying against the meters.

"It just doesn't sound very good for smart meters," Hicks said. "I just don't think it's a good idea to have something put on your home that has not been tried and true."

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