After launching installations in Ouray County in October, crews are now in Silverton, installing the Two-Way Automatic Communication System meters, in SMPA coop members’ homes and businesses.
Without using radio waves, TWACS meters (like automated, advanced or “smart” meters, they provide a form of automated-power-use measurement) measure and transmit information about electricity consumption information once a day over existing powerlines to SMPA headquarters.
SMPA Manager of Marketing and Member Services Brad Zaporski said the new meters eliminate the need for more than 13,500 monthly manual meter readings in the rural SMPA territory that stretches from Silverton to Telluride, and west to the Utah state line.
While the technology is relatively new to SMPA, Zaporski said it has been in use since the 1980s, and is currently being used in 12 million meters in 42 states.
But while this relatively simple new technology is bringing SMPA into the 21st century, a few users have voiced concern about its effect on the health of those who are electrically sensitive, and concerns about loss of privacy and higher electric bills.
Over the past two months, Zaporski has addressed customers’ various concerns at public meetings, emphasizing that the new meters put out no more radiation than the old analog meters did. Regarding privacy concerns, Zaporski emphasizes that there is no way to hack into the communications between SMPA and its meters. And while the capability does exist, he said, for the new meters to “read” the power demands of individual appliances – TVs, washer-dryers, etc., that have been “appliance enabled” – Zaporski said SMPA has no plans to do anything but measure total power use on a daily basis.
Finally, Zaporski has reiterated that the radiation exposure from typical household appliances, as compared to the TWACS meter, is miniscule, with a microwave oven emitting 500,000,000 times more radiation than the meter does.
For those who simply don’t want TWACS in their homes or businesses, SMPA is offering an opt-out, whereby SMPA will charge $25 to conduct manual readings of the old meters, once a month. But customers who are electrically sensitive believe SMPA doesn’t understand their problem – and contend that a $25-a-month meter-reading fee is too expensive.
Not a Smart Meter
After receiving input from member-owners that advanced meters were a step in the right direction for the electrical power co-op to take, Zaporski said SMPA conducted two years of research and analysis before deciding on what particular advanced meter system it should implement.
SMPA officials ended up selecting the TWACS, after investigating a wide variety of systems, because it worked better with SMPA’s varying terrain better than, say, a system that transits wirelessly.
“It is the most effective, proven and reliable system for our application,” Zaporski said. “It’s not really a smart meter. What we are really talking about isn’t about meters at all. What we are talking about is a form of communication and data acquisition.”
He called TWACS a “powerline communication system” in which the meter actually communicates using existing power lines.
“It is much more reliable in respect to our topographically challenged area,” Zaporski said. “Once installed, no longer do we have to roll trucks from the mountains to the desert canyons in order to get a manual read on a meter every month. The truth is we are unable to make manual reads for a good portion of the year due to weather conditions. This will help us reduce misreads.”
SMPA’s neighboring rural electric cooperative, Delta-Montrose Electric Association, faces similar challenges, but it is already two steps ahead of SMPA. In 2005 the DMEA Board of Directors approved the installment in order to reduce operating costs and provide other member benefits. Installments began in 2006 and today there are more than 30,000 automated digital meters in place facilitating meter reading through DMEA’s powerlines.
“In 2006, when we started installing them, people hadn’t called them smart meters yet,” DMEA Smart Grid Program Supervisor Mark Kurtz said. “What we made was a decision to move from analog to digital, and now, somehow it has been branded as a smart grid. A smart grid isn’t the decision we really made. We went from analog to digital, and that decision was in order to keep pace with the new technology in the industry. We chose this technology because it was dead-solid reliable.”
“It was a well-received campaign and to some extent, pretty low-key,” DMEA Spokesman Tom Polikalas added. “Our decision was based on becoming more efficient, billing members more accurately and system reliability. It was a straight-up business model of how it can save costs.”
The notion of saving costs is positive, but does the cost savings come as the result of lost jobs? In DMEA’s case, no; advanced digital meters are not replacing employees. “In our case, we’ve had about the same employee count for 30 years,” Kurtz said. “We have between 105 and 110 employees. What the digital meters allowed us to do is take those people who manually read meters and repurpose them into other areas of the co-op that made more sense. They didn’t lose their jobs,” he said, and the employee repurposing “ultimately made us more efficient.”
Kurtz went on to say that by going digital, DMEA set the groundwork for future savings for its members as well. DMEA’s future plans are to provide electric load information from the meters to members, so that members can see what their power-load is, and also to provide load-shaping technologies (called “load control” or “demand response” in the industry), which will allow certain loads, such as water heaters, heating systems and air conditioners, to be turned off when power costs are higher, and turned back on when costs are lower.
Zaporski said SMPA employees wouldn’t lose their jobs to the new meters. “We are retraining our meter readers to be technicians, so no, they are not going to lose their jobs,” Zaporski said. “SMPA will be paying for them to get more technical training to be better employees for the future of the electrical industry. They will be more qualified.
“This is very possibly the single project with the largest beneficial environmental impact that has ever been done in our service territory,” he continued. “Just the amount of diesel and gasoline alone that will be saved,” he said, means that “we are talking about a very large reduction in pollution and our carbon footprint.”
After all the new meters are installed, will members see a reduction in their power bills?
Not necessarily a reduction in cost, said Zaporski, but rather an improvement in the technology.
“The cost of energy is going up and up and up,” he said. “Our wholesale price of energy just went up four percent, and it’s going to continue to go up. However, with technologies like this, we can offset that increase a little bit. The main thing I want people to realize is that it’s not the wireless system that gets the bad press, it’s a powerline communication system. TWACS and all its components are well within all FCC guidelines.”
Electrically Sensitive Clients Voice Concern
While the benefits of the digital meter sound almost perfect, for someone like Ridgway resident Jean McDonnell, who is electrically and chemically sensitive, says that having a TWACS meter installed in her home will cause injury to her.
McDonnell has been documented as electrically sensitive since 1989. She doesn’t use a cellular or cordless phone, her computer is shielded and she can’t use microwave ovens. As her home is now, McDonnell said she can handle its level of appliances, but that if she is ever over-exposed to something like the fluorescent lights at the grocery store, she will be sensitized to her appliances when she returns home.
“If I am exposed and sensitized in a bigger way than normal, for whatever reason, then even the common electrical appliances like my refrigerator will affect me,” she said. “Before I shielded my computer, it was the biggest source of my symptoms. I get lots of muscle pain in my upper back, I would get tremors and the most debilitating part is when I get Alzheimer’s-type symptoms.”
McDonnell fears that if a new electronic device is installed in her home – one that she san neither turn off nor remove – she may eventually have to leave, should she become sensitized.”
“Because I know my response level, and what I respond to, and having familiarized myself with their system they are putting in, I am concerned that it will cause injury to me. I need accommodations to not have that injury happen.”
In her research, McDonnell said she has found that the problem unique to the TWACS is that the meter, in combination with the powerlines connected to the grid, will bring so-called “dirty electricity” that’s not present on an analog meter.
“I am worried about those transients that can come into my home,” she said.
McDonnell has been in touch with an engineer living in Arizona who’s facing the same situation, with his utility company. In a telephone interview, the engineer, who wished to remain anonymous because of his ongoing fight with his power provider, said the new meters, using existing powerlines, basically “turn all electrical lines into antennas” that bring unintended frequencies into people’s homes.
“There are people that are affected by that,” he said, “including myself. When you have those signals traveling down the lines, the meters will pick them up. Some people are so sensitive, it will affect them.”
In his book Dirty Electricity, Dr. Samuel Milham, MD, warns that the growing proliferation of radio frequencies and radiation from cell phone towers, terrestrial antennas, broadband internet over powerlines and even personal electronic equipment, is adding to the country’s “morbidity and mortality.”
In the case of the smart meters, Milham likened them to the neutral powerlines that power companies drive into the ground at various junctions on the grid. Surrounding those neutral lines, Milham said, he was able measure the amount of voltage the lines were basically dumping into the earth.
“Basically, North America is connected to a neutral return into the ground,” Milham said in an interview. “I put my scope around some of these neutral ground wires and it measured exactly the same as the plug in a house outlet. You can take an AM portable radio and, in the same way, put it near one of the meters, and you will hear something.
“I don’t think you can put data up on the powerlines without converting the power from AC to DC,” he said, creating “dirty electricity.”
While Milham has spent a good part of his career warning of the ill effects of radio frequencies and radiation, he said it is still hard to prove to what extent electronics – and automated meters – may or may not harm residents.
That’s an assessment with which DMEA’s Kurtz concurs, remembering when DMEA, in the midst of installing digital meters, was approached by a woman who said she was Radio Frequency sensitive.
“She told me, ‘I absolutely cannot have this in my house,’” Kurtz said. “She said, ‘I finally have my life in order and I don’t have issues anymore.’ She told me the whole story, and asked what we planned to do about her.
“Well, I asked where she lived,” and, checking the address, reported back that “we already put one on her house, three-and-a-half years before.
“She said, ‘Wow, it must not put out that much RF, because it’s not making me sick.’”
But McDonnell said she can’t risk the comfort and safety of her home by allowing the installation of a device that could make her ill.
“The problem that this meter system brings house to house to house is not an appropriate tradeoff from my perspective,” McDonnell said. “It’s in your home, you can’t avoid it.”
A Possible Compromise?
Citing cost-inefficiencies, DMEA, with just 100-plus employees, will not offer its own version of SMPA’s $25-a-month manual-reading option. “You’d basically have to do the same accounting on two different platforms,” explained Kurtz. “Even if you have very few analog meters, you are still going to have to reproduce a whole lot of functions that the digital readings already do.”
After attending SMPA’s public meetings regarding TWAC meters, San Miguel County Commissioner Art Goodtimes called for a moratorium on the meters until better information could be given on the possible health impacts of the technology.
“Clearly a small minority of citizens suffer serious health consequences from high-frequency transients associated with Power Line Communication [PLC] systems, like the TWACS meters,” Goodtimes said last week. “However, on the other hand, I think the utility industry has not been convinced that their small addition to the [Electro-Magnetic Frequency]
and RF ‘noise’ inherent in our electrified living systems is the cause of those health effects some experience. And there isn't a body of documented scientific studies that fully verify such effects.”
Realizing the likely social benefits of developing a smart grid system, as well as the cost savings to SMPA, Goodtimes went on to say that the current situation puts decisionmakers in a difficult position. With no easy answer in sight, Goodtimes offered a compromise.
“Certainly, charging consumer/owners for opting out seems punitive,” he said. “SMPA will realize a large cost saving by installing smart meters in its service territory, regardless if a few sensitives decide to opt out, and it seems unfair to add a cost for not installing something new onto private property. Why not let consumer/owners read their own meters, with a yearly, unannounced spot check, and fines for any intentional fudging? After all, I thought SMPA was a consumer co-op, not an us-them corporation.”
SMPA plans on finishing installments in Silverton by mid-January and will then move to the west end of San Miguel County after that. The specifications of the TWACS meters can be found at aclaratech.com/AclaraPLS/Pages/specsheets.aspx.