OG&E Smart Meter assurances, fears noted

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 216 views 

The Oklahoma Gas and Electric Corp. (OG&E) Smart Meter Forum at the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce Monday night (April 30) was a mixed bag of acceptance and apprehension.

While some attendees were in favor of the digital meter reading technology, which purports to save Arkansas users a minimum of $2.7 million in the next three years and to reduce outage time, others were concerned about radio frequency emissions and potential privacy issues.

Audiologist Kelley Linton of the Center for Hearing, Ltd., in Fort Smith, was among the Smart Meter supporters.

“Formerly, mornings like today when it’s stormy, I would wake up and worry about the electricity going out while taking care of my patients. I’d think, ‘How will I let OG&E know,’ and ‘how long before it’s (electricity) back on?’ It’s nice knowing they can tell immediately,” Linton said.

Brian Chase concurred with the decision, adding that it was a “sensible solution” given the state of current technology.

“Any time I see a meter reader, I can’t help but think, ‘There’s got to be a better way to get this data back to the electric company with what we have (in technology) today.’”

Chase continued: “I would be more upset if my electric utility provider was not doing things to be more efficient. And about the emissions safety, I just have to say that companies as old as OG&E don’t get to be around as long as they have by doing stupid things, and installing something that can easily be proven as a health hazard. It would be devastating to their company, and it doesn’t make sense they would do something like that.”

Still, some weren’t so sure.

Noah Steffy, Owner-Operator at The Floating Rock, LLC, in Fort Smith, pointed to the “Assessment of Radio Frequency Microwave Radiation Emissions from Smart Meters,” report conducted by Sage Reports Environmental Consultants, as proof the Smart Meters may not be as harmless as OG&E believes.

From Sage Reports Summary of Findings:
“Consumers, for whatever personal reason, choice or necessity who have already eliminated all possible wireless exposures from their property and lives, may now face excessively high RF exposures in their homes from smart meters on a 24-hour basis. This may force limitations on use of their otherwise occupied space, depending on how the meter is located, building materials in the structure, and how it is furnished.”

The report also states, “People who are afforded special protection under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act are not sufficiently acknowledged nor protected.”

However, Ken Grant, Managing Director of Consumer Solutions for OG&E, told attendees the “amount of exposure” from the Smart Meters OG&E will use for the changeover, which is expected to reach completion by the end of 2012, will be much less than everyday household items.

“A microwave oven has over 500 times the exposure. A typical walkie talkie can be as much as 4,000 times more. A cell phone as much as 2,000 times. Your Wi-Fi connection will be higher than the Smart Meter (in exposure),” Grant said.

Grant also noted that “most of the radiation from the RF would be pointed away from the house as it’s trying to reach an access point.”

The new Smart Meters are designed to eliminate the need for a human meter reader by transmitting energy usage electronically and anonymously after accumulated daily readings. Data will be “collected and aggregated in 15-minute intervals throughout the day,” according to Grant. Then, “every four hours,” the information will be transmitted to OG&E.

Grant said OG&E would only have the ability to start and stop service, and that they would not be able to regulate how much energy is used, nor would they be able to determine which appliances or areas of the home are using the most electricity.

Gary Hammer voiced his concern about this last statement, noting that appliances were “currently being developed to communicate with Smart Meters.”

“If you can’t control it, then why do the next wave of appliances have chips that are designed to communicate directly to the Smart Meter?” Hammer asked.

Grant assured the audience OG&E “could not” and “would not” regulate energy usage.

Arkansas Public Service Commission (APSC) Executive Director John Bethel added that, “OG&E would have to install additional facilities and would have to get permission from the Public Service Commission” to pursue such a plan, because such measures “are not in their current applications.”

On the topic of OG&E’s current applications, including the lack of an “opt-out” for customers who don’t want the service, Bethel came under fire for accepting the utility company’s move to change over from electromechanical meters to digital without including such an option.

Jean McClellan told Bethel that if he’d been more communicative with customers, “you wouldn’t be having this meeting.” She also stated that her first bill with a Smart Meter rose “from 700 kilowatt hours to 918 kilowatt hours of usage.”

“I expected a little higher because it's been hotter, but I didn’t expect 918,” McClellan added.

Bethel didn’t comment on the higher bill, but he pointed to the availability of OG&E’s application on the Arkansas Public Service Commission website and said that “notice was provided to customers when the application was filed.”

“Customers had the opportunity to submit written comments by email or by letter, and they also had the opportunity to make comments at the public hearing,” Bethel added, noting “there were no comments” at the meeting prior to the application’s approval in 2010.