by JOHN WAYNE FERGUSON
In front of a crowd of more than 200 people, the Public Utility Commission on Tuesday heard repeated calls to create an opt-out program for people who do not want smart electric meters installed at their homes.
Included in those calling for such a program was a member of the Legislature.
“To some degree, as a member of the Legislature, I feel I owe you members of the PUC an apology for making this your problem, rather than a problem for the Legislature,” said state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview. “In hindsight, the Legislature should have specified a specific opt-out or even possibly an opt-in provision.”
Following the meeting, Simpson said that if the commission and the utility providers did not come to an agreement on an opt-out program, he would work to introduce legislation to create one.
The PUC was noncommittal about any immediate changes. Chairwoman Donna Nelson said the topic of smart electric meters would be discussed again at a future open meeting.
Tuesday’s hearing came long after the state’s utility companies began installing the meters, a process that started in 2007. The PUC has said that as of Aug. 1, 5.8 million smart meters have been installed — completing 90 percent of the work that is expected to be done in the state. Utility companies began installing the meters after being encouraged by the Legislature to do so — and after being given the ability to charge a fee to pay for the cost of a meter.
Proponents say that smart electric meters can help track usage and control costs. Opponents of smart meters say that the law did not mean all ratepayers had to submit to accepting a smart electric meter at their homes.
“The law did not create a mandate for smart meter installation, and providers are acting beyond the purview of the law by forcing smart meters on customers,” said Janise Cookston of the property rights group We Texans. “It shouldn’t matter why [ratepayers] do or do not want the installation, they should have the power to choose.”
Supporters of the technology say that being able to get detailed information about power usage — the smart meters break usage down into 15-minute increments — can help consumers be more efficient.
“What this will be able to do is enable people to control when those loads are used in very sophisticated ways,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen. “We can’t build enough plants fast enough. But we can use our energy significantly smarter.”
Some other states, including California, Maine, Nevada and Oregon, allow customers to opt out of having smart meters installed, but with an additional fee to cover the cost of having a meter reader check usage. In May, Vermont passed a law preventing power companies from charging additional fees for customers who wished to opt out.
The commission also heard testimony Tuesday from people saying that their health has been affected by the radio wave emissions from the meters or that their personal information is vulnerable to hacking — though evidence behind such claims is disputed. The commission heard from experts supporting the relative safety of the devices, and others warning of their potential harm.
Smart meters transmit data using radio frequencies similar to the technology in cellphones. Proponents of the meters say the radiation is minimal. The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates transmission frequencies, has ruled that smart meters are safe.
In regard to the safety of information, the U.S. Department of Energy said in a report issued in January that many companies deploying smart meters had not done enough to protect the systems from hackers who might be after customers’ personal information.
One of the experts invited to testify however, said that the information that is transmitted by the meters is hardly useful to anyone except power companies.
“They’re too crude. They don’t give me enough information,” Dr. Robert Hebner, the director of the Center for Electromechanics at the University of Texas at Austin, said of the meters’ ability to provide specific data about how people are using their electricity. “It’s possible that somebody smarter than me could join the information, but I don’t use smart meters to get the information about how things are running.”
In remarks opening the meeting, the Christine Wright, the PUC’s senior market analyst, responded to some of the more conspiratorial theories about the push behind smart meters.
“There were questions about how transparent our process was. There was also some concern that this seemed to happen overnight. And what we want to share with you is that it did not,” Wright said. “It all began with the legislation that passed in 2005. We weren’t under any federal directives and we didn’t look at the U.N. or anything like that.”
JOHN WAYNE FERGUSON reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.
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