For six months beginning this summer, Florida Power & Light will be replacing old electric meters with smart meters on some 50,000 Flagler County homes and small businesses. The conversion will virtually affect all residential properties. It’s part of a roll-out of 200,000 smart meters in Volusia and Flagler counties, itself part of FPL’s statewide conversion of 4.5 million in 32 counties to smart meters.
The smart meters are dormant 99 percent of the time, but they periodically transmit information back to FPL on the customer’s energy usage.
“Right now a customer doesn’t know how much energy is used until the bill arrives,” Elaine Hinsdale, an FPL spokeswoman, said. “The smart meter will enable customers to actually manage and take proactive action if they want to reduce their energy consumption and thus reduce their energy bill. So the meter will tell them like it’s currently been telling FPL how much energy they’re using, they’ll be able to monitor it by the hour, by the day, by the week and by the month.”
The information can be monitored through a customer’s account online. The company in turn can use the information to better manage its grid and respond to problems when power fails.
It all sounds somewhere between innocuous and useful. To some customers however, the smart meter is a dangerous thing: a tool of “surveillance,” an intrusion on individual privacy, an environmentally dubious device that emits allegedly harmful electromagnetic pulses, and an extension of big government or big brother. Small but vocal minorities of customers are looking to opt-out of the conversion.
FPL itself is assisting them, for now. “If a customer has a concern about a smart meter, we will gladly put their installation on hold,” Hinsdale said. “We will conclude the installations in 2013, and at that time we’ll know how many customers we need to work with and how to address their concerns.”
But the opt-out customers want to be permanently off the smart meter grid. Some of those customers are approaching their local governments to draft them into a campaign that would limit FPL’s power to replace the meters. County or city governments can’t tell FPL what to do. But the Florida Public Service Commission can, up to a point. The commission is holding workshops later this year to hear public concerns about the smart meters and figure out how to balance FPL’s and most customers’ conversions with the concerns of those who are opposed.
In Volusia County earlier this month, the county council voted to send a resolution to the Public Service Commission supporting an opt-in provision for customers. In other words, a customer would have to be actively agree to a smart meter before one is installed, as opposed to the more passive option of opting out of one. The Volusia council in April had actually passed a resolution agreeing to an opt-out provision. But several people turned out at a subsequent meeting and shifted the commission’s approach. Opponents of smart meters took that as a victory.
Then they turned their sights on the Flagler County Commission, demanding a similar resolution locally. Commissioners received a letter from Joan Affatado, who has frequently and at times emotionally appeared before the Flagler commission to plead against smart meters’ introduction.
Flagler County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin brought up the matter Monday evening. “I think a letter of support for that resolution, or support to have the PSC look at these smart meters, make sure that they’re either proving or disproving whatever is our there. But I’m looking for this board to consent to a letter of support for that ordinance from Volusia County.”
Barbara Revels, who chairs the commission, asked fellow-commissioners if they were interested in having the county administration draft such a resolution.
“First they went with the opt-out, but now they’re asking for the opt-in. They want to make it optional,” McLaughlin said. “It’s just letting the PSC know where we stand. This is their decision. The whole smart meter issue is theirs, it’s not ours. But I’ve been asked to at least do a letter of support. That’s what I’m asking of this board.”
Commissioner Alan Peterson wasn’t willing to support an opt-in provision. “It ought to be the other way. It ought to be opt-out, because the vast majority—my guess is, the vast majority of the population doesn’t care one way or the other, so therefore that segment that really feels that this is a problem, let them opt-out. But they ought to have their option.”
Peterson is right: of all the 3.3 million smart meters installed so far with FPL customers, “about one-tenth of one percent have expressed a concern of smart meters,” FPL’s Hinsdale said.
Barbara Revels, who chairs the commission, brought up the matter of a resident whose home faces an entire meter bank. The woman is not connected to the anti-smart meter movement. But she is concerned about a cluster of meters so close to where she lives. “So there’s other issues involved with that, because she would not able to, if it was opt-out, have her meter pulled off the wall if other people were in on that bank. She was asking for there to be consideration regarding multi-unit properties.”
But Revels wasn’t favoring a Flagler County resolution similar to Volusia’s. “I want to make sure, like commissioner Peterson said, that this is really, really important for our future power management, across the country I believe, that we can learn from having our power better managed. They do that from data as well as I would want to go online and be able to see data changing in my household. I think that bit’s a really great thing. Until such time as someone has really been able to produce some scientific evidence of what it might do, I think that people should have that right to opt out, if it’s possible—if it’s possible—for the power company to do, and if it’s possible for the public service commission to approve that, and that’s as far as I want to go as far as the scope in being involved in this.”
Commissioner Milissa Holland agreed that an opt-in provision would be “way too cumbersome.”
Conclusive evidence on the alleged dangers of the smart meters is non-existent. Hinsdale says the meters emit one thousandth radio frequency of cell phones or baby monitors. Opponents of smart meters seized on a study by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine released in mid-April that urged “immediate caution” in the installation of the meters. “More independent research is needed to assess the safety of ‘Smart Meter’ technology,” said Dr. Amy Dean, board certified internist and President‐Elect of the AAEM. “Patients are reporting to physicians the development of symptoms and adverse health effects after ‘Smart Meters’ are installed on their homes. Immediate action is necessary to protect the public’s health.”
But the academy, while ennobled by an impressive name and supported by physicians, is itself suspect, opposing such things as fluoride in water and supporting the medically untested notion of “multiple chemical sensitivity,” which ascribes a variety of ailments in people to environmental factors, though such findings are based—according to Quackwatch’s Stephen Barrett, himself a physician, on “questionable diagnostic and treatment methods.”
FPL’s Hinsdale says the smart meters do not tap into the power use of specific appliances inside the home, though they do have that capability. The smart meters are equipped with two radio emitters, one a 900 mhz radio, the other a 2.4 ghz radio. The latter, which could tie into appliance use (as long as those appliances themselves have a chip[ that interfaces with the meter) is turned off, Hinsdale says, with no plans to turn it on—and certainly no such plans without the customer’s consent. FPL just concluded a pilot program in Broward where the second transmitter was turned on, but it involved 500 volunteers who opted into the pilot program.
Opponents of the smart meter who fear its surveillance capabilities point to the existence of the second radio as the equivalent of a Trojan horse: it’s there, ready to be turned on. That’s not quite the intention with FPL, Hinsdale said. “As with a lot of technology, it’s built for the future,” she said, with some utilities using the technology to other ends. “We are not. FPL has no plans to implement the option other than our proposed option right now.”
That option only measures overall power use.