As the Maryland Public Service Commission debates whether or not utility companies can charge customers to opt out of smart meters, Baltimore residents are working to spread awareness about a technology they feel isn’t so smart.
“While it is beneficial for BGE’s bottom line, it is not for us or our families,” said Pikesville-area resident Frank Storch via email. “We pay the price by exposing ourselves to a serious health risk and by compromising our safety and privacy.”
BGE started installing the new electric meters in spring 2012. The meters, which transmit information via a wireless network, send electric usage data to the company every hour without having to send a person monthly to read the meter. The company says this more complete picture of electricity usage, which is available to customers, can be tracked online and can help BGE recommend ways to reduce energy use.
While BGE, which has 1.2 million customers throughout Maryland, and Pepco, which has customers in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, maintain the technology is efficient and safe, some consumers are weary of the meters.
Those opposed to the smart meters say they emit dangerously high doses of radiation, the smart grid the data travels on is susceptible to hacking, the meters overheat and catch fire, the amount of data pouring in gives BGE that ability to track appliances and how many people are home in a house, and there are no substantial studies saying the devices are safe.
“My real concern is whether or not these things are safe in your house,” said area resident Allan Sherr.
A group called Maryland Smart Meter Awareness is working to spread awareness about issues with smart meters.
“The biggest challenge we have is educating the public,” said Jonathan Libber, the group’s president. “The utilities are counting on the fact that most people have no idea this is coming. This is a game changer.”
The Maryland Public Service Commission has not decided if it will permit BGE to charge customers to opt out of smart meter installation. Customers currently can defer smart meter installation for no charge. BGE and Pepco representatives say they support charging customers who opt out because of the extra costs involved in maintaining BGE’s old meter system.
Those opposed to the smart meters are not alone. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine recommends that people with neurodegenerative diseases, neurological conditions, fetal abnormalities and pregnancies, genetic defects, cancer, liver and genitourinary disease not have smart meters because of the radiation they emit. The organization also sent a letter to the Public Utilities Commission of the State of California opposing the installation in homes and schools.
“Chronic exposure to wireless radio frequency is a preventable environmental hazard that is sufficiently well documented to warrant immediate preventative public health action,” the letter said.
The World Health Organization in May 2011 classified radio frequency electromagnetic fields associated with wireless communication devices as possibly carcinogenic to humans.
“There’s a lot of evidence pointing to the fact that there’s very good reason to be concerned,” said Pikesville resident Ruth Eisenberg, treasurer of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness.
Approximately 3 percent of BGE customers in the smart meter deployment area have deferred smart meter installation, according to spokeswoman Rhea Marshall. Approximately 600,000 smart meters have been installed in Anne Arundel County, southwest Baltimore County and Calvert, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. BGE is currently actively installing meters in Pikesville, Randallstown, Arbutus, Essex and Dundalk, she said.
BGE claims the smart meter radiation is weak. Standing 3.28 feet away from a microwave exposes a person to 100 times more the amount of radiation; using a wireless router, laptop or sitting in a cybercafé exposes a person to 150 times more radiation; and holding a cell phone exposes a person to 50,000 times more radiation, according to BGE figures.
“What we tried to explain to people is that these smart meters operate at lower radio frequency than many common household devices — garage door openers, baby monitors,” Marshall said.
The utility company has not experienced any fires from its devices, and Pepco spokesman Marcus Beal claims fires in other areas have been caused by faulty installations.
In response to claims about BGE knowing what appliances are being used and who is home in a house, Marshall says the smart meters are simply reporting the same data the company has now but with more frequency and in a more efficient way.
“No, we don’t know if someone is using their microwave or how many televisions people have or anything like that,” she said.
While there is no opt-out option in Washington, D.C., Beal said about 2,100 of 553,000 customers in Maryland opted out of smart meter installation.
“The vast majority of our customers were eager to have the meters installed,” he said.
He thinks many were excited about them because in restoration efforts the smart meters can report in real time where power outages are rather than have crews drive to places to find out. Pepco’s meters also have a temperature gauge and send a warning to Pepco if they are overheating. He thinks all the attention the meters have been getting is “odd.”
“There’s really no valid reason why you should not have the meter,” he said.
Del. Glen Glass, who represents parts of Harford and Cecil counties, plans to rally for a bill in the upcoming Maryland General Assembly that he pushed for last session that would allow customers to opt out of smart meter installation free of charge and require utility companies to remove smart meters and reinstall the old ones for customers who don’t want smart meters, also free of charge.
“You shouldn’t have to pay for something you don’t want, and there are a lot of reasons not to want one,” he said. “We want freedom, and this is not freedom to have this dangerous meter shoved down the throats of the citizens of Maryland.”
Marc Shapiro is a JT staff reporter