Md. panel ponders smart-meter alternative

Rudolph Johnson III, a BGE meter crew leader, removes a BGE legacy meter and installs a smart meter on a home on Hoot Owl Road.
Rudolph Johnson III, a BGE meter crew leader, removes a BGE legacy meter and installs a smart meter on a home on Hoot Owl Road. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

Some Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers — Del. Glen Glass of Harford County included — are convinced that they don't want a smart meter wirelessly sending data about their energy usage day in and out.

Some, like Eric Rockel of Lutherville, are withholding judgment while they do more research.

Maryland utility regulators firmly support the new meters, but even they have decided to do more research. They want to know the cost of customers opting out and keeping one of the old analog meters before ruling on whether to allow it.

The Maryland Public Service Commission said this week that it would impose an "appropriate" charge on anyone opting out, if it does go that direction. Otherwise, it will require smart meters across the board but offer the option of an "alternative" installation aimed at lowering or eliminating radio frequency emissions, a move the panel hoped would allay concerns about radiation risks.

It hasn't — not for the most ardent members of the anti-smart-meter crowd, at least.

"We're disappointed," said Jonathan Libber, president of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness, a citizens group with about 500 members. "In the positive sense, at least they didn't absolutely forbid opt-outs. We still hope we'll get one."

An opt-out option may come without the Public Service Commission. Glass, a Republican, says he will propose legislation shortly to require that consumers be allowed to opt out at no cost. A similar bill failed to get out of committee last year, but this year will be different, he said.

"Now I've got a lot of traction, I have people emailing me, I have people who want to be co-sponsors," Glass said. "We're the Free State — we should not have these things shoved down our throats."

Utilities have been installing meters that talk back to them — supplying near-real-time information about energy use — since at least the middle of the last decade. The devices save the companies money on meter reading, provide immediate information about outages and offer customers options for lowering energy bills.

Federal grants increased the pace of installation in the last few years. About a quarter of U.S. electrical customers now have smart meters — more than 35 million in all, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

As the meters proliferate, so too do states with opt-out programs, including California, Nevada and Maine. Vermont — as far as advocates are aware — is the only state where customers can opt out without a monthly charge. Typically, people must pay an initial fee and extra per month for the privilege of having an old-style meter.

Nevada regulators just lowered the charge to about $52 initially and just under $9 a month, down from about $100 initially and more than $9 per month, after the state's Bureau of Consumer Protection complained.

The opt-out ranks are small — based on other utilities' experiences, BGE anticipates 1 percent or less. Central Maine Power Co., for instance, says 1.3 percent of its 620,000 customers have asked for a smart-meter alternative.

But the device's opponents are worried and vocal. Some are concerned that smart meters pose a health risk, much in the way that there are anxieties about cellphones. Others point to fires started by several meters in Pennsylvania — a different brand than the one BGE uses. And still others don't like the idea of more information about their energy use flowing to utilities, especially via potentially hackable wireless methods.

Maryland's Public Service Commission said it didn't find convincing evidence of risks to customers. Regarding health, the commission said: "Smart meters emit 'non-ionizing' radiation, which scientists have studied extensively for several decades and found no evidence of harmful effects on human beings."

Three of the panel's members said they were considering an opt-out because some Marylanders have a "good-faith belief" about health risks. The other two commissioners opposed the opt-out idea altogether.

"Even if only a small number of customers were to opt out, the companies will now be required to maintain parallel meter data management systems and retain legacy meter reading staff and infrastructure — costs that [smart meter] deployments were designed to eliminate," the dissenters wrote.

It will be months before the panel makes a final decision. Members want detailed information about costs, and the utilities have until July 1 to provide data. The state's Office of People's Counsel, which represents residential utility customers, wants to put experts on the case to make sure costs passed on to people taking a smart-meter alternative are fair.

In the meantime, customers may opt out temporarily until regulators decide whether the option will be permanent. They must make the request to their utility. (BGE won't disclose how many have done so.)

Theresa Czarski, deputy people's counsel for Maryland, said her office's main concern about smart meters is privacy. Customer data must be safeguarded, she said, adding that the utilities seem very focused on that need as well.

"We think that the meters probably aren't harmful, but there are people who claim they have some effects on them," Czarski added.

Christine Hoch, an activist who until recently ran the Virginia-based Center for Safer Wireless, said anyone can experience headaches and insomnia from exposure to cellphones, smart meters and similar devices, but those who are "electrosensitive" have reactions that are more severe.

Libber, a Baltimore attorney who took smart meters on as a cause after retiring from the Environmental Protection Agency, argued that an industry-cited study that says smart meters emit a much lower level of radio frequency radiation than cellphones is inaccurate. He pointed to a rebuttal from a nuclear-policy lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who said an apples-to-apples comparison of exposures shows a far higher level from smart meters.

Because studies conflict about the cancer risk from cellphone use, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer classified radio frequency fields as "possibly carcinogenic."

With cellphones, at least, consumers have control, Libber said.

"The smart meter will be going 24/7," he said. "There will be no escape from it. … We really should know, before we start pouring lots of radiation into people's homes, what the impact will be."

Rockel, president of the Greater Timonium Community Council, is in the undecided camp. He brought BGE officials out last fall to talk to residents about smart meters, and his impression of the devices is "generally" good, but he hopes to invite an anti-smart-meter speaker out this spring. Then he'll make up his mind.

Of course, no one knows yet what the alternative will be.

"It sounds like they're headed in the right direction," he said of the Public Service Commission, "but I think the real devil is … what's the cost going to be."

Smart-meter advocates, insisting the device is safe, are voluble in its praises. The Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative, whose members include electric utilities, industry vendors and nonprofits, sees meters as a critical step in modernizing a system reliant on called-in outages and in-person meter reading.

Consumers with smart meters can go online to track their energy use by the hour. They can also access new types of energy deals. In Maine, for instance, customers now may sign up for "time of use" plans that charge less for energy used at off hours — between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. — and more at peak times.

Energy suppliers might follow suit in Maryland. BGE, for its part, says it will offer rebates for pulling back on particularly high-usage days but no penalty for not doing so. Customers whose smart meters are up and running by July will be able to participate in that incentive program, with all smart-meter customers eligible by the summer of 2015.

More than 10 percent of BGE customers have smart meters so far. The company began installing them in the southern part of its territory last May — Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties are almost done now — and expects to finish the $482 million deployment at the end of 2014.

BGE has been phasing out its 100 meter-reading jobs — some employees have switched to other positions in the company — and also expects to save on trucks and fuel. Besides eliminating the need for manual reads, the meters allow utilities to remotely start or stop service and notify them about outages, cutting down on wasted trips in the aftermath of storms, BGE said.

Michael Butts, director of smart grid for BGE, said Hurricane Sandy in October gave the company a taste of the future. Officials knew exactly which homes had power and which didn't in neighborhoods with smart meters.

"With only about 10 percent of our meters installed, we avoided about 387 truck rolls," he said. "So if you extend that to the full system [in a] similar-sized storm, we're saving thousands of truck rolls."

BGE eventually will seek to recoup from customers the $282 million in smart-meter costs that weren't covered by a federal grant. But Robert L. Gould, a BGE spokesman, said the savings also will be passed on to customers — all of it. He said the utility expects to save about $2.5 billion over 10 years.

"This is not something that's going back to the bottom line of the utility," he said. "It's directly passed on to the customer."

That's another debated point in the smart-meter brawl, because opponents doubt anyone will see benefits but the utilities. Some officials agree: Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan argued in a 2011 Chicago Tribune opinion piece that smart-meter deployment in her state was turning in disappointing results on consumer savings.

Patty Durand, executive director of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative and a former Sierra Club official, has heard all the arguments against smart meters and thinks they "don't stand up under scrutiny."

But calls for opt-outs are tricky to ignore.

"To be fair, it's hard to say that consumers shouldn't have choice," she said. "That's not a message that works."