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This week, Village Public Works Director Johnnie Burns tested the power density of the radio frequencies emanating from the digital smart meter at the Bryan Center, finding that non-ionizing radiation levels reached a peak of more than 100 µW/cm2 every 30 seconds, but fell dramatically further away from the meter. In this two-part series, the News will examine the issues surrounding radio frequency radiation from both smart meters and new, fifth-generation wireless technology. (Photo by Megan Bachman)

Villager charges smart meters unsafe

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Although otherwise healthy, over the last few years Marnie Neumann said she has developed frequent bouts of nausea and suffers headaches and insomnia. She also describes hearing a high-pitched, variable hissing noise that will persist for hours.

Because Neumann finds that her symptoms abate when she is away from her Pleasant Street apartment — and after laborious online research — Neumann feels certain she knows the culprit behind her recent health issues: her electricity meter.

“It’s making me literally sick and I can’t sleep,” Neumann said of her meter at Village Council’s Dec. 3 meeting.

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In 2016, the Village of Yellow Springs, which operates its own electric utility, replaced its 2,200 analog electricity meters with remote-read digital meters that transmit data wirelessly, also known as smart meters. At the time, Village Manager Patti Bates explained that the meters would reduce the workload of an understaffed utility department.

Fewer errors, less of a chance of injury to meter readers and better productivity are additional benefits the Village has realized, Bates said this week.

“It saves time and we can devote that staff time to doing other things,” Bates said.

For instance, since the move to digital meters, the Village has redirected its staff to read local water meters more frequently, which has helped them catch water leaks earlier, before they lead to mounting water bills.

In addition, the Village has not found convincing scientific evidence that smart meters are harmful to people’s health. Pointing to a statement from the American Cancer Society that the radiation from a cell phone is much higher than that from smart meters, Bates said the link between Neumann’s health problems and the smart meter affixed to the side of her residence is not clear.

“We understand that there are concerns and that some people are hypersensitive to the [radio frequency radiation], but there is not solid scientific evidence that they are harmful,” Bates said.

“I’m a four-time cancer survivor,” Bates added, “so I’m not going to be around anything that is hurtful. I’m comfortable around [the meters.]”

As a result, the Village will not allow Neumann to opt out of the digital meter and reinstall an analog meter, which Neumann had requested at the Council meeting earlier this month.

For the Village’s part, to allow some people to opt out would defeat the purpose of the new meters, as meter readers would have to again read local meters manually. Neumann, however, is not pleased with the decision, she said this week.

“I’m so disillusioned and disappointed,” Neumann said of the Village’s refusal of her request.

The Village has inspected Neumann’s meter to confirm it was functioning correctly and performed other testing at her residence. But Neumann, who also owns and operates Starflower Natural Foods downtown, said she won’t accept anything less than a replacement of her home meter with an analog version, which is electromechanical rather than digital.

“I’m shocked that we are somehow locked into this,” Neumann said. “I thought we were a health-conscious, aware community.”

The Village is now exploring the replacement of its conventional water meters with remote-read water meters in the next few years. At the same time, Council recently passed legislation that regulates — as much as the state and federal government will allow — the local dispersal of small cell towers for telecommunication firms to deliver the new fifth-generation (5G) wireless internet across town.

Can the radio frequency electromagnetic radiation produced by smart meters  negatively impact local residents’ health? What other concerns do villagers have about technologies that generate electromagnetic radiation, such as small cell towers, and what can be done about it? In this two-part series, the News will explore these issues.

Meters get smart

The nationwide move to smart meters picked up speed with President Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill, which established the Smart Grid Investment program, an
$8 billion public-private partnership with 200 utilities to modernize the grid.

Among the benefits proponents touted were energy efficiency improvements from more detailed energy use feedback.  Other stated benefits to utilities — and thus their customers — included time-of-day pricing, immediate outage detection and the ability to remotely shut off power.

According to Mike Hyland, senior vice president of electrical engineering at the American Public Power Association, a trade group for municipally owned utilities, smart meters represent a natural technological progression in the same way cathode-ray tube televisions gave way to digital TVs.

And although some resistance to the meters is due to the fear of change, Hyland said they are here to stay, which is a win for the utility, the customer and the environment.

“They are more efficient. They will keep your rates down. You get more accurate reads. They do nothing to your house. It’s the future, it’s coming and in some cases, it’s already here,” Hyland said.

But criticisms came swiftly. Opponents cited privacy concerns due to the collection of vast amounts of household energy use data, potential fire dangers and the possibility of injury from radiation during a meter’s regular radio frequency transmissions, which can be as often as every 15 seconds.

Utilities moved ahead anyway with the initiative, often backed by federal and state funds, while state legislators wrestled with the regulatory issues and citizen campaigns began to take legal and political action.

According to a 2017 American Public Power Association report, almost half of all U.S. electricity customers now have smart meters, as more than 70 million meters have been installed.

More utilities are planning smart meter deployments in the coming years. Nearby public utility Dayton Power & Light, which serves many households in Miami Township, just submitted a plan to replace its half million meters with smart meters, according to a spokesperson this week. Meanwhile, Vectren is in the process of converting its gas meters in the area, according to its website.

Village utility benefits

The meters that are at this moment measuring the energy use of the Village’s 2,200 residential and business customers are in some ways very different from other operating smart meters.

Known as ERT meters, or Encoder Receiver Transmitters, the local devices offer the utility some, but not all, of the benefits other smart meters provide.

Importantly, the ERT meters do not have the capability for two-way communication. That means that the Village cannot monitor real-time electricity usage, check for outages, or remotely shut off power to a customer.

Instead, the Village uses the meters just once each month. As a Village meter reader drives through town with a handheld device, it picks up the signal being sent from nearby meters and downloads the data. That single reading is used to bill utility customers.

The process takes about 45 minutes, a dramatic savings of time for the meter readers, who once had to trudge through inclement weather, evade dogs, scale stairwells and squint to get an accurate read through the sometimes dirty, cloudy meter windows.

What now takes less than an hour once required three weeks with two meter readers, according to Village Public Works Director Johnnie Burns. That translates into 240 person-hours saved over that time period that can now be used in other areas at the Village.

“We have so much stuff to do here and this way we were able to re-use the employees,” Burns said.

In addition, the meters are now read monthly rather than every three months. That means the Village bills its electric customers for their actual monthly use rather than three-month estimates.

Staffing benefits were among those cited when Village Council unanimously passed a resolution to install the meters in November 2015. The total cost of the new meters, including installation, at $280,000, was defrayed in part from an Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation grant of $40,000.

The meters were installed over six weeks in early 2016.

A smart choice?

But are the benefits accruing to utilities — some of which are passed onto customers — at the expense of those who must live in proximity to the meters?

Josh Hart, director of Stop Smart Meters, a national advocacy group based in California, says yes.

While utilities and governments often point to the lack of clear evidence connecting smart meters to health problems,  that confusion is generated because of the preponderance of industry-funded research, Hart believes.

“Seventy percent or more of research that is independently funded shows a [health] effect, whereas only 50 percent of industry-funded research says the same,” Hart said.

Hart’s organization, meanwhile, is “inundated with people saying they have health problems” from their smart meters, he said. They most commonly describe nerve-type headaches that originate in the temples, nausea, rashes and other skin problems and insomnia. Those symptoms mirror decades of research into the harms caused by radio frequency electromagnetic radiation, according to Hart.

Among the most convincing evidence of harm comes from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which in 2011 classified the kind of radio frequency electromagnetic radiation used in wireless communication as a Class 2B carcinogen, or “possibly carcinogenic.” Two types of brain cancer were implicated in the research completed on cell phone radiation and were especially clear in cases of heavy cell phone usage.

But what about the Village’s ERT meters? According to Hart, the Village’s meters are known as “bubble-up meters,” which send regular digital wireless messages of a customer’s cumulative energy use, whether or not they are picked up by the utility. A previous generation of smart meters, known as “wake-up meters,” would turn on only when instructed to and send data on demand, he explained.

The Village’s smart meters send a message every 30 seconds. But Burns confirmed this week that the Village in fact only uses a single reading. That means that every month, a local meter sends more than 86,000 unused wireless transmissions.

In tests last week using a radio frequency detector, Burns found that the smart meter at the Bryan Center gives off radiation spikes every 30 seconds of up to 107 microwatts per square centimeter at a distance of several inches from the meter. When not transmitting data, the background radiation levels at that distance were 0.2 μW/cm2. But three feet away from the meter, that peak falls from more than 100 μW/cm2  to 5 μW/cm2, with a background measurement only as high as 0.1 μW/cm2. According to a utility fact sheet, doubling the distance from the meter cuts power density by four. The measurements offer some evidence that residents, who are typically much further from the meters, cannot be harmed by the device.

A smart meter fact sheet from Vectren on their ERT meters tells a similar story. While radio frequency radiation two inches from a microwave oven is measured at
5 μW/cm2 and with a cell phone up to one’s ear, at 1–5 μW/cm2, a digital ERT meter can only be measured at 0.000009 μW/cm2 at 10 feet. Federal Communications Commission exposure limits, meanwhile are at 200–1,000  μW/cm2.

Smart meter opponents are not convinced. Other countries have much lower exposure standards, ranging from 0.001 to 50 μW/cm2, according to one analysis from the Santa Cruz County Department of Health. In addition, FCC guidelines are only targeted at the acute thermal effects of the radiation, not the impact of chronic non-thermal exposure, opponents say. And they don’t take into account cumulative exposure due to the proliferation of electromagnetic devices such as cell phones and  WiFi routers.

Hart believes that since questions persist about the safety of the meters, utilities should go back to the analog version.

“The basic solution is the electro-mechanical meters. They do not produce dirty electricity, resist surges, do not expose residents, are widely available and last for decades,” Hart said.

As for allegations that those questioning smart meters are raising alarm without solid science, Hart says to look at the history of environmental health movement.

“When people say you’re crazy, you’re nuts, I look at the history of cigarettes, DDT, asbestos,” Hart said. “We have this industry assumption without the research that is it safe but that’s because it is massively profitable and being widely deployed.”

Opting out

Nearly all local utility customers now have smart meters operating daily on their homes. However, there were a few places in the Village where the meters were not installed. At first, the new meters wouldn’t work at the two dozen local solar energy producers due to software issues, but the issue has been resolved and the Village has installed the new digital meters.

Only one residence still uses the older meter. That household was allowed to retain its old meter because of concerns about the health impact from the electromagnetic radiation produced by the meter.

When Michael Bell spoke at Council’s November 2015 meeting about his worries about smart meters, the Village responded by promising further research on the matter.

Then-Council member Lori Askeland took on the task, and shared this week two articles that convinced her that the evidence that smart meters may be harmful was not there — one from the American Cancer Society and one from the Huffington Post.

Both articles argue that the electromagnetic frequencies, or EMFs, from cell phones, microwaves and other devices are significantly higher than smart meters, and that evidence of the ability for that type of radiation to have a physiological impact is scant.

The Huffington Post article states that, “the health risk due to radiation by smart meters is hundreds or thousands of times less than that of cell phone usage” and characterizes those who are concerned as either uninformed or disingenuous. 

At the conclusion of her research, Askeland told Council she thought that the exposure from the meters would be minimal. But that did not satisfy Bell, who said he conducted his own extensive research on smart meters between 2013 and 2015.

“In order to protect the health, safety and welfare of myself, my family, my friends, and my property, I refused to have the new reader installed,” Bell wrote in an email this week.

The Village ended up allowing Bell to opt out of a new meter, with an agreement that it would be replaced if his family moved or if the old meter stopped working.

But while Bell’s residence retains its old meter, no other customer is allowed to opt out. And since the Village runs a municipally-owned utility, it can set its own policies.

Meanwhile, Ohio’s public utilities are bound by a state law requiring them to allow customers to opt out of smart meters.  In addition to notifying customers before the meters are installed, utilities are required by law to allow them to opt out, even while they are permitted to charge both one-time fees and ongoing monthly fees to do so.

Such smart meter opt-out policies vary widely from state to state, according to Hart, whose organization tracks such regulations. In Vermont, for instance, utilities must allow customers to opt out before new meters are installed and cannot legally charge them any fees to do so.

Hart estimates that about half of all states require public utilities to allow opt outs, which is significant considering that smart meters aren’t available in every state yet, he said. Other utilities that have decided to not allow any opt outs often face citizen resistance when they do so, he said.

Allowing opt outs is only a partial solution in Hart’s view. Instead of a matter of individual choice, smart meters should be seen as one of societal action. That way those who live in multi-family housing or who are too poor to pay opt-out fees are protected from smart meters, which Hart believes “are not safe for anyone.” Any opt-out fees, he believes, amount to extortion.

“If there’s a device that could harm you and you have to pay to avoid it, that’s literally the definition of extortion,” Hart said.

Bates defended the Village position to not allow opting out, saying that it would erase the benefits of the smart meters.

“It may actually take more time to hopscotch the Village to read the houses who have opted out,” she said.

But Neumann will accept nothing less than an old meter on her home again.

“I can’t not be angry when something is making you miserable in your own home,” Neumann said. “Why would you lock us into a situation where we have no choice?”

Next, the News will look at issues surrounding the rollout of 5G wireless in the Village, which began with initial infrastructure work this week along Corry Street.

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