‘Halt ‘Smart’ Meters in MA’ organization states case against mandate

By Patricia Burke

The green sheen is wearing thin in Central Mass. A Freedom of Information Act request by Worcester residents to the Department of Public Utilities revealed that despite $48M in ratepayer expense for the smart meter pilot program, which is 5 times larger and far more expensive than the 3,000 meter mandate, National Grid is not studying whether different categories of low income residents will alter electricity consumption behavior in response to punitive pricing structures.

The pilot map includes sections of Auburn.

The MA DPU is in the process of mandating smart meters as the cornerstone to grid modernization at a $7.6B anticipated cost, with auto-enroll and time of use billing, despite the fact that the Worcester pilot has not yet validated the cost-effectiveness of the technology. DPU Chair Ann Berwick is the spouse of gubernatorial candidate Don Berwick, who endorses smart meters.

Wireless smart meters transmit private usage data to utility companies continually via microwave radiofrequencies. Instead of billing residents once a month for overall usage, utilities will surcharge customers when they consume electricity during “prime time,” for example from 10 am to 8 pm weekdays. Smart meters are under fire nation-wide for cost, security, privacy, health, safety, green-washing, and discrimination controversies, including the impact on medically vulnerable, electromagnetically hypersensitive, and low income residents.

Time-of-use pricing structures penalize stay-at-home parents, the elderly, those who work at home, and second and third shift employees who are often in the lower income customer category. The AARP, National Consumer Law Foundation, National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates, Public Citizen, and Consumers Union have advocated for essential consumer protections for smart meters. MA consumer advocates oppose the pilot’s lack of informed consent with no anticipatory compensation arrangements for possible losses, including deleterious property value and health impacts, which were discounted by Worcester’s administration in two controversial reports.

The Green Communities Act mandated that each Massachusetts investor-owned utility conduct a smart meter pilot. MA utility NStar enrolled 3,600 customers via informed opt-in. 25% dropped out before installation, and 44% dropped as of May 2013. NStar opposes the DPU smart meter mandate.

The Freedom of Information Act inquiry was requested to learn how many Worcester residents had opted out of the Worcester program. Unlike other pilots, National Grid has replaced opt-outs with additional participants. Consumer activists state that results will be skewed if the program enrolls customers who have a pre-disposition to support pilot goals. High-income residents with pools will not be inconvenienced by an over-ride switch on the pump that would be controlled by the utility in exchange for lower electricity rates. Those with home air conditioners running in empty houses during the day who are willing to raise the thermostat setting remotely via cellphone during a critical peak period have little in common with a single parent working third shift needing to do laundry during the day.

In response to the Freedom of Information Act request, the DPU did not provide the requested opt-out statistics, but instead forwarded a presentation given by National Grid to the DPU in January 2014. The presentation stated “Based on lack of customers to fill separate low/medium/high use income groups, propose combining into one group and conduct additional focus groups,” “We may not be able to meet the minimum customer numbers for the specificity within customer groups,” and “Any expectation to fill the specific groups within the rate class would require pilot expansion to reach more customers.”

Ten out of 26 European countries have concluded that smart meters are not a value for the money. Italy hard-wired its meters, and is not collecting personal surveillance data from homes. Italy’s radiofrequency exposure limits are hundreds of times lower than those referenced by National Grid, reflecting the impact of the Vatican Radio leukemia lawsuit.

Germany rejected smart meters for both economics and concern about state centralization/abuse of power. The International Energy Efficiency Scorecard, released by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy ranked Germany #1 in energy efficiency, with high marks for its comprehensive national energy strategy, building codes, and commitment to increasing efficiency within the industrial sector. According to the report (PDF), “the United States has made limited or little progress toward the goal of using energy more efficiently in recent years.”

Rhode Island’s DPU Commissioner Paul J. Roberti stated that smart meters don’t come close to justifying their costs, and represent a misguided attempt to modify the behavior of consumers in ways that don’t conform the real world. Although Hurricane Sandy is often cited as justification for storm hardening and grid resiliency, New Jersey is not deploying smart meters.

The Berkshire Litchfield Environmental Council stated: “The smart grid is increasingly understood as an over engineered, ill-advised, financial boondoggle at taxpayer expense, capable of endangering the security of the entire national grid, violating constitutional privacy protections and endangering public health. In addition, the smart grid/metering has not been found to save energy when all the new variables in the system are factored in. Plus, time-of-use pricing is largely punitive to those who can least afford it.”

“Getting Smarter About the Smart Grid” states that Congress, state and local governments, as well as ratepayers, have been misled about the potential energy and cost saving benefits of the new “smart” meters, paid for in large part with taxpayer dollars, as well as ratepayer dollars.

In response to the proposed gas pipeline, the Consumer Law Foundation wrote,”…to minimize ratepayer exposure to expensive infrastructure bets that risk becoming uneconomic, and to fulfill environmental and climate change targets, we urge you to ensure that all tools in the region’s energy toolbox – on both the demand and supply sides – be fully, fairly, and publicly evaluated before proceeding with efforts to advance new large-scale publicly-financed natural gas pipeline infrastructure.”

MA consumer advocates are asking that smart meters also be fully, fairly, and publicly evaluated, in particular by respecting the voices of impacted Worcester residents. For starters, they feel that opt-out and auto-enroll statistics should be provided and verified. They also question the number of residents who still do not know that they have a smart meter installed, and whether any violations of human rights have occurred for non-English speaking households that may not have received translated materials.

In the January presentation to the DPU, National Grid identified its “Leverage Influencers” who will “Mobilize Customers” as Clark University, W.P.I., the Green to Growth Summit, and the Worcester Business Journal. The City Council and special interest groups are listed as “external stakeholders,” leaving Worcester residents wondering why elected officials are not watching out for their interests.

What happens in Worcester won’t stay in Worcester.