Mom takes on smart meters over privacy, security and health
By Melissa Jenco and Matthew Walberg
Opponents say the devices provide so much information that everyone from cops to criminals to marketing departments can learn when people are home and what they do when they're there
HICAGO (MCT) A mother of three who buys organic food and worries about the dangers of "dirty electricity" has become the face of resistance in Naperville, Ill.
Led away in handcuffs after trying to prevent the installation of a "smart meter" on her home, Jennifer Stahl vows to continue the protest movement that has made this suburban community ground zero in a battle over privacy rights versus modern technology.
"This is unreasonable search and seizure," said Stahl, 40, who believes the devices designed to monitor power usage are intrusive and pose a health risk. "It definitely is not OK for my utility … to know when I'm home and not home."
The arrests of Stahl and another prominent opponent, Malia "Kim" Bendis, 40, only heightened tensions between city officials and members of Naperville Smart Meter Awareness, a group of residents that started to organize nearly two years ago. The group now numbers about 75 volunteers, Stahl said.
Police have become involved in the ongoing ruckus, accompanying installers at homes where residents had repeatedly refused a meter. Officers recently lined City Council chambers when dozens of opponents showed up to protest the two arrests.
The devices are capable of using wireless signals to relay detailed information about an individual consumer's power consumption.
Proponents say the meters will ease the strain on the nation's overburdened electrical grid, reducing power outages. The information collected by the meters, they add, will make it easier for consumers to see when electricity is in low demand and less expensive, so they can tailor their use of major appliances to save money.
But opponents say the meters provide so much information that everyone from cops to criminals to marketing departments can learn when people are home and what they do when they're there.
Last year, the anti-meter movement fell just short of collecting enough signatures to place a question on the ballot asking residents to decide whether the devices should be removed. They also have a pending federal lawsuit against the city alleging their constitutional right to due process has been violated.
The group sent out an email last week asking members to show up at the council meeting Tuesday as it renewed its call for elected officials to resign and for City Manager Doug Krieger to be fired.
Naperville, which operates its own electric utility, has installed more than 57,000 meters and has about 150 left to go, said Krieger, who has a smart meter on his home.
"Overall the meters are good for the city's customers," Krieger said. "They're going to allow us to offer lower rates, they're going to make our system more reliable and secure, and they are going to allow us to provide programs to residents who on a voluntary basis can participate to save even more money."
The $24 million project added the city's 142,000 residents to the growing number of U.S. households and businesses equipped with smart meters.
The number of homes with smart meters has tripled nationally since 2009, said Howard A. Scott, managing director of Cognyst Advisors, which provides consulting services to utility companies and governments in the United States and abroad.
"As of the end of 2012, we counted 60,450,428 smart meter installations in the U.S. and Canada," Scott said. "About 10 percent are in Canada, and 10 percent are business and industrial. You could probably say that just below 50 million are in U.S. residences."
The meters are capable of communicating with smart appliances such as dishwashers, furnaces and dryers and with digital apps that tell homeowners how much electricity they're using and how much it costs. Since electricity is more expensive during certain parts of the day when more people use it, homeowners can track usage and save money by doing laundry when rates are cheaper.
Consumers also can let the utility remotely control devices such as air conditioners and furnaces, turning them off or lowering their output for short periods to help reduce stress on the electrical grid.
Naperville's meters are programmed to take readings every 15 minutes, providing nearly 3,000 separate meter readings a month rather than the once-a-month reading with traditional analogue meters.
Meter readings taken at 15-minute intervals can provide a wealth of information, such as when people are home, go to bed or use their large-screen TV, said Jennifer Urban, co-director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law.
Mark Curran, director of public utilities-electric for Naperville, disagrees.
"I don't know how you could absolutely say from this one data point you could tell what was on … because you're just getting the total amount of power that went through … that meter in that 15-minute period," he said.
Opponents question whether Naperville will be able to prevent unauthorized access to personal information and fear the wireless system will be more vulnerable to hackers.
Krieger said the U.S. Department of Energy approved Naperville's security measures, and the city enlisted an outside firm to test its security features.
Naperville officials likewise drafted a "Customer Bill of Rights" that prohibits the release of private information about individual customers, but allows the city to disseminate aggregate data to certain energy, governmental and academic researchers.
Privacy hasn't been the only concern for meter opponents.
After researching the devices, Stahl concluded they could be harmful.
"If this is going to be a potential health hazard to me and my family that's just not right," said Stahl, who received two ordinance violation citations: interfering with a police officer and preventing access to customer premises. Bendis was charged with two misdemeanors: attempted eavesdropping and resisting a peace officer.
Stahl said the city is downplaying the strength of the meters' signal and expressed concern that prolonged exposure to their radio frequency could have negative health effects.
Dr. Mark A. Roberts of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine said some people have complained of health effects from radio frequency, but there is no reliable research to support the claims.
"I know of no study scientific, peer reviewed published study, that shows … the radio frequency emitted from smart meters cause measurable adverse outcomes," he said.
Opponents also have cited the risk of house fires tied to the new meters. A small percentage of homes in other cities have experienced fires related to smart meter installation, but those involved faulty hookups or "defective equipment" already on the homes. None have been reported in Naperville.
Meanwhile, the city has made installation of a new meter mandatory, but offers a digital non-wireless version at a cost of $68.35 for the meter itself and $24.75 per month to manually read it.
Roughly 270 people have chosen the non-wireless option, Krieger said.
Stahl said that since the anti-meter group formed, it has heard from many who expressed gratitude for its efforts.
There's no backing down, she said, from something as important as constitutional and property rights and the right to refuse the new technology.
"How," she asked, "can I just roll over and say never mind?"
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