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Rhode Island Braces As Fights Rage Over Utilities’ Smart Meters

Friday, August 09, 2013

 

Maybe Southeast New England is deciding that “smart meters” aren’t such a smart idea after all.

For several years, a cadre of determined activists in Massachusetts and Rhode Island have been waging what once seemed to be a quixotic campaign against a program to replace relatively simple and inexpensive residential electric meters with a high-tech version that critics say is a boondoggle for utilities and meter companies that takes yet another bite from ratepayers and, some say, raises health concerns.

On the face of it, the fight is a mismatch par excellence. On one side is a scattered group of homeowners and activists. On the other is a consortium of corporations, led by National Grid, a multinational power giant headquartered in the United Kingdom, and that includes Verizon, Google, Cisco, and government backers from the Obama administration on down.

And ground zero is Worcester, where, with the help of friendly regulators at the Department of Public Utilities and the support of Governor Deval Patrick, National Grid is already halfway through installing 15,000 of the meters in homes in the city.

Rhode Island, meanwhile, has a little-known pilot program of its own—a far more modest one on Aquidneck Island and one approved under a different economic rationale. There are no current plans to expand the meters in Rhode Island, and at least one member of the Public Utilities Commission is determined that the situation stays that way until much more evidence is brought to bear that these meters are worth it and have the support of consumers.

A prominent skeptic

In an interview with GoLocalProv, Commissioner Paul J. Roberti says smart meters don’t come close to justifying their costs and represent a misguided attempt to modify the behavior of consumers in ways that don’t conform the real world.

How smart is the choice to convert to smart meters? Maybe not so smart in the final analysis.

“You know what? The markets, the structure of pricing is not there,” he says. “These people (meter proponents) want to push all this stuff–I call them behavior-modification specialists––forcing things on consumers that don’t come naturally. You can’t get consumers to fully embrace this unless you give them economic pain, which I won’t do.”

Utilities have already installed about 18 million smart meters across U.S., while $3.4 billion in economic-stimulus money is supporting the installation of 40 million more smart meters in 40 states, according to an in-depth look at the technology by Consumer Reports. By 2015, an estimated 65 million smart meters will have been installed.

Promise of savings

A central promise of smart meters is that the massive amount of information they generate could be used to get consumers to lower their power during peak periods–either through coercion via higher rates at peak hours or through rebates. The hope is that the new technology would lower overall usage and costs.

Trouble is, it hasn’t worked out that way as pilot programs around the country have failed to show that the meters actually live up to their main promise: actually reducing overall energy consumption. In a stinging letter to the state Department of Public Utilities Commission, for instance, a lawyer from Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office pointed to large-scale tests in Illinois and elsewhere in which the meters failed to justify their costs.

“Despite these clear trends, [National Grid] proposes to launch a massive pilot at great ratepayer expense to test already tested hypotheses,” Coakley’s office wrote.

The industry-friendly DPU last year brushed aside such concerns, and, in a 103-page order, approved Worcester's program.

Jillian Fennimore, spokeswoman for Coakley’s office, says, “We are currently monitoring the smart grid pilot program” and will review the results of the final report that results.

DPU referred questions about the Worcester program to National Grid.

“Best interest of customers”

In an email, National Grid didn’t respond to Coakely’s specific assertions, but said: “We followed a defined process with the DPU that the AG was part of. The DPU ruled and now we are executing the pilot that we believe to be in the best interest of customers and will help in defining the future grid that will serve customers for generations to come.”

The spokeswoman said the meters are “designed to provide participating customers a new level of choice and control over their energy use through advanced technology, with the goals of empowering customers to save energy, increasing electric service reliability and improving response to power outages.”

Worcester, the “lab rat”

The Worcester pilot is being closely watched as–yet another–test of whether the economic benefits of the meters come anywhere near offsetting the costs: $45 million just for the pilot. The stakes are high: it would cost an estimated $7 billion if the entire state were to switch to smart meters–the amount coming at the expense of ratepayers who will see the cost added to their monthly bills. Nationally, the grand total is pegged at more than a quarter trillion dollars. The rate increases come on top of federal taxpayer subsidies from stimulus.

“Worcester is the lab rat,” Patricia Burke, a leader of smart meter opponents, said recently on a local cable show. “They’re looking to see how low-income, middle income and upper-income groups respond to different price points and technology.”

“But we’re not monitoring health,” she says. “This is the big issue.”

The city is also being watched to see whether community opposition can have any effect -- at all -- in slowing a program that once seemed destined quietly to sweep the country. The immediate venue is a September 9 hearing before the city Zoning Board of Appeals on a controversial 80-foot cellphone tower in the city needed to support the wireless signals from meters installed in or outside residences to National Grid data centers. The hearing has been postponed several times but zoning laws general favor the towers. The longer-term, and perhaps more promising, fight is for public opinion: trying to convince ratepayers to “opt-out” of the program.

Many concerns

John Dick, a 59-year-old carpenter in Worcester, says the issue has generated high interested among neighbors who have come together to oppose the meters for a variety of reasons. Some are concerned about privacy (the meters will generate a substantial amount of information about customers’ power usage); some are worried about possible health effects of radio emissions; some about cost; and a vocal contingent raises NIMBY-esque aesthetic objections to the towers.

“For a lot of people, it’s about the towers,” Dick says. “For me, it’s the whole thing. The people in the neighborhood are very much up in arms, from all sides of the political spectrum. It’s not a ‘right’ issue. It’s not a ‘left’ issue. It’s not crazies. It’s very moderate, very conservative people.”

Activists see more residents gravitating to their point of view.

“We feel the tide turning, and it’s a beautiful thing,“ says Clare Donegan, a 52-year-old mother of three grown children who lives in Quincy and who has helped organize opposition in Worcester and across the state.

Indeed, some political figures have opposed the meters or tried to moderate the terms of their installation. Connecticut’s attorney general, George Jepsen, came out strongly against a plan by that state’s utilities two years ago to roll out smart meters statewide, saying an earlier pilot “showed no beneficial impact on total energy usage.” Partly as a result, the state’s energy regulators shelved the plan. Meanwhile, Maine and Vermont joined six other states around the country to pass laws making it easier for consumers to opt out of smart meter programs and keep old meters. A similar bill, proposed by Rep. Thomas Conroy, D-Wayland, is pending in Massachusetts.

But while opponents may be gaining some traction, given the corporate power arrayed in meters’ favor, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to stop smart meters in the long run. Consumer Reports, for one, says that given the corporate forces arrayed in favor of the program, national smart-meter implementation is “all but a given.”

Health worries

Rhode Island, meanwhile, watches warily.

Mary Adkins, 52, an activist in Wakefield, has been primary concerned about what she describes as the health hazards posed by radio emissions of smart meters, which she believes in some respects are worse than similar emissions from such devices as cell phones and Wi-Fi.

“This is all about profit,” she says. “This is all about the economy. This about wireless companies making billions, hundreds of billions, while our health is jeopardized. And that’s not acceptable.”

Roberti says such health concerns among consumers should be taken into account in deciding whether to adopt a program of such scope. And in any case, he says, states should tread warily if even simple cost/benefit issues haven’t been resolved in the meters’ favor.

“If these things are going to happen, they should happen on their own,” he says. “We shouldn’t go around and frontload all these costs. There’s just not enough of a natural market mechanism to do this. I don’t like when regulators are trying to force things.”

 

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