The Jefferson County Public Utility District (PUD) has put the brakes on plans to switch to “smart” meters, after more than 25 members of the public offered their input, which was overwhelmingly against the new meters.
“This has been an education for me,” said Kenneth Collins, PUD Commission president, after fellow commissioners Jeff Randall and Wayne King had already weighed in following an informational meeting at the Chimacum fire station Oct. 30.
Collins, sitting at the center of the table, described himself as “both literally and figuratively” between the positions of Randall and King.
Randall opened the commissioners’ responses to the public by suggesting the PUD not commit to its proposed contract with Itron, a meter manufacturer based in Liberty Lake, until it has obtained more information.
“From what I’m hearing, the people of this district are happy that we’re a utility and want their power consumption measured as reliably as possible, but they don’t really want this utility to collect additional data,” Randall said. “We should keep things as simple as possible.”
King followed up on Randall’s remarks by refuting the accuracy of the “Take Back Your Power” documentary, which focuses on allegations of hazards supposedly presented by smart meters. The film was shown at the Port Townsend Community Center Oct. 25.
“There were claims in there [the film] that were absolutely a lie, designed to get people excited,” said King, who also objected to accusations that the PUD had “blindsided” the public with its smart meter plans. “We started talking about it in 2013. We put out an agenda every month.”
While Collins echoed some of King’s concerns with “Take Back Your Power,” as well as King’s warnings of the expenses that would be incurred for personnel to read the analog meters called for by the public commenters, Collins also suggested that meters could be read through power lines by extending the county’s fiber-optic cable coverage.
“This hits close to home for me, as a resident of Marrowstone County,” Collins quipped, referencing Marrowstone Island’s relative isolation, “which has abominable cell phone service.”
Given that PUD attorney Richard Hughes had confirmed that the PUD has not yet contracted with Itron, Collins recommended the PUD “step back for a number of months,” not only in response to the expressed concerns of its customers, but also to allow for the possibility of funding for fiber optics in the county.
THE ‘PUBLIC’ IN PUD
The commissioners’ remarks came after a contentious public comment period, which was punctuated by outbreaks of applause in spite of Collins’ admonitions to refrain, and which began with wrangling over how much time each speaker should be allotted.
A sign-wielding Karen Sturnick, by her own admission, reiterated the remarks of her fellow public speakers for the most part, but in accordance with her neon sign reading, “Where’s the ‘Public’ in P.U.D.?” she views the act of adding her voice to theirs as vital in its own right.
“My voice is just as important, even if I’m saying the same thing,” Sturnick said. “And my biggest issue is the lack of transparency in this process. It feels like the train has already left the station, and that needs to be said again.”
Dorn Campbell, the first member of the public to speak that evening, set the template for many of the speakers who followed, first by pointing out that he’d cast his ballot to create a public utility district in 2008, and then by criticizing the PUD for moving to adopt smart meters when so much controversy exists over their potential impacts on customer security, human health and the environment.
Despite assurances from PUD Assistant General Manager Kevin Streett and members of the PUD Citizen Advisory Board (CAB) that the only data transmitted by the smart meters would be serial numbers and usage levels, and that even those would be encrypted, Campbell warned against the potential for further surveillance, which he feared could be sent to third parties.
Likewise, even after CAB member Peter Lauritzen had cited statistics showing that the magnetic and electrical fields generated by the smart meters are a fraction of what current safety standards allow, Campbell compared the “anecdotal evidence” of health and environmental risks allegedly posed by the smart meters to the early evidence that smoking causes cancer, which was initially refuted by more authoritative sources.
“I voted for the PUD to take local control over our energy,” Campbell said. “With the lack of consensus that exists here, you should be responsive to your customers’ concerns.”
Rosemary Sykes, who also said she voted for the PUD in 2008, was the first to object to what she and several others identified as the relatively short lifespan of the smart meters – from five to seven years – with Ana Wolpin following on these concerns by estimating that the meters’ physical lifespan – from nine to 10 years – would outlast that of the software inside those smart meters.
“Under the present system, our meters have life-spans of more than 40 years,” Wolpin said, suggesting that, instead of spending the $3 million that the PUD was requesting to convert to smart meters over the course of three years, it could recondition analog meters for a cost of a little more than $500,000, leaving nearly $2.5 million free to explore creative energy alternatives such as solar power.
“The industry regards the new technology as necessary because the old meters only perform a single function,” Wolpin said. “You’re pushing something with a shorter lifespan on us.”
Alby Baker cited 130 community organizations in 40 states that have taken action against smart meters, including having fines issued against utilities that have implemented them. He then joined the chorus of public speakers decrying what they see as the PUD’s lack of outreach in planning to adopt smart meters.
“These smart meters are generating record blowback across the country,” Baker said. “If there are reasonable doubts, why not slow down? Instead, the evidence has been deemed inconvenient, dodged and dismissed.”
Doug Milholland speculated that the signals sent out by smart meters, along with cell phone and wireless internet signals, could be contributing to the decline in bee populations and the health of other wildlife.
“I’m addicted to power,” Milholland said. “I use it every day, but worry we may be rushing toward our own demise.”
While Sebastian Eggert offered praise for what the PUD has accomplished since its inception, he criticized its scheduling of the meeting at 5 p.m., as opposed to a later time that would allow more working people to attend.
“We are the public in the PUD,” Eggert said. “This is a serious enough concern that it warrants a careful decision, which should include all of us.”
Annette Huenke quoted from internal documents by Itron, indicating “cost adders” of $50-$90 per smart meter, and noted that the cost of Seattle’s conversion to smart meters ran five and a half times more than the original estimate.
Huenke additionally cited research by the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency, indicating that, contrary to claims that smart meters’ transmissions can be limited to once every four hours – as opposed to the current meters’ rate of once every five minutes – smart meters instead “emit almost continuously,” and that “it’s not possible for them to emit less than 100 percent of the time.”
Perry Spring presaged Collins’ suggestion by warning that an upgrade to smart meters could soon be rendered obsolete by a national trend toward increased fiber-optics-based networks by 2020.
Spring then suggested assembling a task force made up of community stakeholders to “bring everyone to the table.”
Tim Lambert earned laughs by comparing the proposed move toward smart meters to the fondness of plumbers for above-counter sinks.
“It’s their joy in over-complication,” Lambert said. “But by bringing in more wonderful things, you risk waste. Some things are OK simple, so why not go with the wave of enthusiasm and desire here?”
By his own admission, Chris Jones was the “outlier” among the public speakers, as the lone voice in support of adopting the smart meters.
“Climate change is my biggest concern, so I support anything that can make the electrical grid more efficient and reduce the use of electricity,” said Jones, who was “impressed with the presentations by Streett and the CAB members. “I want to trust the PUD, and I think I can. I don’t think it’s a good idea to try and micromanage them.”PUD backs off on smart meters