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Some Consumers Push Back Against 'Smart' Utility Meters


One new way utility companies and their customers can track how much electricity they're using is with smart meters. Power companies all over are in the process of replacing old residential meters with new digital ones. The meters transmit realtime data back to the utilities and at public hearings from Maine to Oregon, some people are pushing back against such installations.

Severin Borenstein, director of the University of California Energy Institute, says this is a big part of what's known as smart grid technology.

SEVERIN BORENSTEIN: The Obama administration, during the stimulus package in 2009, put about $6 billion into smart grid investment and most of that went into these new smart meters for customers. What the meters do is record your usage, usually on a 15-minute or 30-minute basis, and then transfer that information electronically back to the utility.

CORNISH: Now, how does this change things? I'm not sure if this is something that's supposed to be help to consumers or to the power companies.

BORENSTEIN: On the power company's side, part of it is outage detection. Before, with the old meters, you had to actually call and let your utility know that your lights were out. And now, a power outage immediately is indicated by these electronic meters that they have. At the same time, it allows the customer potentially to see how much electricity they are consuming.

And this is potentially very useful because one of the things that we understand least, of all the things we consume, is electricity. People don't really know when they're consuming it. If you ask most people, they don't have any idea whether it's mostly their refrigerator or their television. All these different things you use, all you get is a bill at the end of the month that tells you the total.

And this will allow people to understand much better how they're getting to that total.

CORNISH: So there have been issues raised with them. First, there are people with health concerns who worry about the wireless transmissions and the radiation, but also people have questions about privacy, given this information sharing that could be involved. Are these legitimate concerns to your mind?

BORENSTEIN: Well, the science hasn't really supported any of the health concerns that the radiation or electromagnetic fields from these devices really cause a health risk. The privacy issue is definitely an issue that some people are concerned about. It's important to note that these are not sending your realtime consumption second by second back to the utility.

Usually, they're sending your hourly consumption or your 15-minute consumption. That isn't precise enough information for you to figure out, for instance, what devices are being used. But it does indicate when you're home and when you're not home, and it can over time indicate when you get up in the morning. That's information that some people might not want others to know.

And as a result, most utilities are developing strict protocols for the availability of these data.

CORNISH: So is this something that people can opt out of?

BORENSTEIN: In some areas, utilities are allowing customers to opt out of it but when they do, that really raises the cost because now instead of a meter reader who is going down the street reading every house, if you are the only one who opts out, they have to send a special meter reader out each month to read your meter.

As a result, there's generally a charge associated with opting out. I think over time, interest in that is going to decline. The privacy issue on your hourly electricity consumption is pretty minor, compared to what people are putting on the Web and otherwise the information that's getting out through other channels.

CORNISH: Severin Borenstein, thank you so much for speaking with me.

BORENSTEIN: Thanks for having me on.

CORNISH: Severin Borenstein, he's director of the University of California Energy Institute in Berkeley, California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.