AZ: Utility ‘smart meters’ raise health, expense concerns

• Howard Fischer Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX – Elizabeth Kelley isn’t claiming those smart meters reading your electric usage are going to kill you.

But the Tucson head of the Electromagnetic Safety Alliance said the radiation coming off what essentially is a radio transmitter attached to your house is just being added to all the other radio waves already hitting your body. And she said there is evidence that some people are affected by all that.

The question is more than academic for Arizonans, as the state Corporation Commission considers what rules to impose on the use of these “smart meters” by Arizona Public Service Co., Tucson Electric Power Co. and other investor-owned and cooperative utilities in the state.

Commissioner Susan Bitter Smith said it’s highly unlikely the panel will bar the meters, which already are in widespread use. She said it’s not for the commission to weigh all of the conflicting claims about the effects of the radio waves coming off the meters.

The question for the commission, she said, is how much the utilities will be able to charge customers who have concerns and want to opt out.

TEP, which already has installed a variant on these meters on the homes and apartments of half its residential customers, has proposed a $10-per-month charge to read the meters, though there is a $5 discount for reading your own meter. That would be on top of a one-time $20 installation fee.

That, however, is a bargain compared with what Arizona Public Service wants from its 1.1 million residential customers who want out: A $75 setup fee – and an extra $30 a month to read the meter manually, with no self-read discount. The company already has deployed close to a million of the meters.

Salt River Project, which is not subject to commission oversight, charges an extra $20 a month.

The fight has gotten the attention of some in the Legislature.

Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, already has written to commissioners telling him of the concerns of constituents about not only the health effects but the possibility the meters will be sending out information on exactly what appliances they are using and when.

“I am opposed to APS being allowed to charge any fees for customers wishing to keep their old meters,” he wrote. “My constituents should not be singled out and penalized for wanting to keep the older-style meter that, in most cases, came installed on their home and is a proven technology that has been in use for over 100 years.”

Commission member Gary Pierce indicated in a response to Thorpe that opting out will come at a cost. “For those people that wish to have the older-style analog meter, the utility will incur costs that they wouldn’t have if all customers were using a smart meter,” Pierce wrote. He said the question for the commission is who bears that.

Brenda Burns, another commission member wrote to Thorpe that while she is looking at APS claims of costs, she wants to ensure that those who opt out “are treated in an equitable and fair manner.”

Thorpe said he understands there is a cost, but he said the APS fees are “unreasonable.”

The main question, then, for consumers is, what are the risks of the meters?

“If you’re not experiencing any symptoms that you know of that are tied to this exposure condition, you’re probably still in the majority,” Kelley said.

“But there are some people who are affected who perhaps already have immune system problems, they have some type of disability and they can be functionally impaired,” she said. And Kelley said even some people who have never been sensitive to electromagnetic radiation may be “genetically predisposed to react more to these frequencies.”

The meters send out regular reports by radio waves to the utility on a customer’s energy use.

Joe Barrios, spokesman for Tucson Electric Power, said the meters used by TEP are one-way radios, sending a brief signal about twice a minute. But he said the energy level is minimal, pegging it at less than 0.01 percent of exposure allowed by the Federal Communications Commission.

Kelley, whose organization just this week was granted permission to formally intervene in the case, does not dispute the intensity of the signals. But she said it’s being combined with all the other energy emitted not only by radio, TV and cellphone signals but that, because it is digital versus analog, it behaves differently.

That goes, in part, to individual sensitivity.

In a letter to the commission, Tucsonan Ariel Barfield, a PimaCommunity College teacher, said he is “electrically hypersensitive.” He said everything from fluorescent lights, cell towers and, now, even the electrical system in his car and the clothes dryer create insomnia, chest and back pain. Barfield backed that up with a letter from his doctor.

While Barfield said TEP has agreed not to install a smart meter on his house, the meters on nearby homes have caused insomnia problems.

“My health is at stake,” Barfield wrote. “At the very least, mandate an opt-out for all wireless-enabled utility meters.”

In his own letter to the commission, Bob Kaplan, a medical doctor and board certified radiologist, said he advises people with underlying malignancy, neurological disorders or chemical sensitivity to avoid radiation emitted by smart meters.

“Susceptible individuals, indeed, all Arizonans have a right to refuse these meters without penalty,” he wrote.

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