Smart electricity meters are raising new concerns in the District. These “smart meters” let Pepco read your meter wirelessly. But earlier this week, a FOX 5 investigation revealed a wide range of potential problems.
Pepco has installed the meters at 270,000 homes and businesses in the District, but some D.C. councilmembers are now saying not so fast.
Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) introduced legislation Tuesday that could allow people in the District to opt-out if they don’t want a smart meter.
The new devices eliminate the need for a meter reader and sends the information directly back to the utility wirelessly. McDuffie says he has received calls and complaints from people worried about the devices.
“They’re concerned about their health, their safety and the privacy associated with smart meters,” McDuffie said.
Those are the same issues raised in a FOX 5 investigation. Opponents across the country have pointed to hundreds of fires linked to smart meters or cases where the meters got so hot they melted.
The devices also use wireless signals to send information back to the utility. The radio frequency used is similar to a cell phone and do emit burst of radiation. Pepco told FOX 5 its meters are well within government standards.
“Our meters are actually communicating at very low level, very low power, and this is so low, it’s dramatically below cell phones, cordless phones, baby monitors,” said Pepco spokesperson Marcus Beal.
Pepco began installing the meters in 2010 as part of a federal push to upgrade the power grid. It is now 99 percent complete in the District, meaning just about every home, business, apartment and condo building already has them.
The utility says it has not had any fires in Maryland or the District, but did report at least 15 cases of overheating.
McDuffie held oversight hearings into the concerns and the DC Office of the People’s Counsel asked the Public Service Commission in 2012 to look at the feasibility of an opt-out. Several states nationwide have given customers that option, including Maryland.
However the District’s PSC decided it did not have the statutory authority. McDuffie’s legislation, “The Advanced Metering Infrastructure Implementation and Cost Recovery Authorization Amendment Act of 2013,” changes that. It directs the PSC to provide an opt out and to determine other options and fees the utility may charge.
“It really boils down to offering customers an option to opt out if they so choose,” he said.
Opponents also argue that the meters pose a risk to privacy. A congressional report last year raised questions about privacy and cybersecurity. Hackers have already proven smart meters can be compromised, leaving the entire power grid vulnerable to attacks and blackouts. At the least, a criminal could use the hourly information on usage to determine when you’re not home.
“It’s a phenomenally powerful surveillance device as well as a tremendously powerful radiation emitter,” cautioned Jonathan Libber, head of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness.
Pepco has heard the same concerns and has reassured customers they are safe and secure.
“RF is safe. The cybersecurity concerns — we have taken the appropriate measures. Data privacy — we take that seriously. We protect your information,” Beal said.
McDuffie though believes District customers should have a choice, given the concerns raised. The legislation would give the PSC 120 days to come up with guidelines for how an opt-out program would work. It would also allow the utility to recover the cost of operating a redundant system for those who don’t want smart meters.
A number of states charge customers a monthly fee to opt out. It ranges from $5 upwards to $15 in some states, on top of an initial fee that is usually $50 or higher.
“Ultimately I hope that the cost, whatever it is, is going to be fair,” said McDuffie. “We know that other jurisdictions offer an opt out and the fee ranges across jurisdictions. What we want to ultimately have here in the District of Columbia is to make sure it’s a fair price when it comes to opting out, particularly to our residents and seniors who are on fixed incomes.”