Vermont and the opt-out provision

Policy is rational, though the argument remains unpersuasive

Phil Carson | Nov 20, 2011


Here's a challenge to power industry readers. I'd like to hear reasoned responses.

To date, given the history and the fringe nature of many of the health-impact arguments being made by ratepayers in Pacific Gas & Electric's service territory over smart meters—at least the wireless version, presumably the most common type of deployment—I've largely dismissed those arguments.

In some cases, individuals complaining of illnesses purportedly related to wireless smart meters had not yet had a wireless interval meter installed. In some cases, the claims of essentially instant brain cancer—I exaggerate only lightly here—are simply not credible. Particularly as the smart meter backlash in PG&E's case was part of a continuum in which PG&E was fined for interfering with ballot issues around municipalization by cities in its territories and the citizens fought back. Anger at mistreatment created backlash and backlash found an outlet in claims of health impacts from wireless smart meters.

Also, the fact that only small pockets of backlash have arisen out of 20-plus million meters installed across the country and that today backlash is taking place in Vermont well before any deployments makes me cynical.

Let's be clear: there's no doubt that data privacy and security issues are real, are well-founded and require demonstrable technical and policy solutions—not lip service intended to speed deployments. I've argued that privacy breaches of electricity customer data—regardless of the seeming ubiquity of such breaches in other industries and arenas—might possibly doom grid modernization or severely hamper it. 

I will say, however, that folks in the anti-smart meter crowd in California who've phoned me to press their case have to the person been unable to hold a rational, two-way conversation on the topic and merely direct the fire hose at me. They have not been capable of answering queries into their reasoning. They spew psycho-babble.

Enter Matt Levin, outreach and development director for Vermonters for a Clean Environment. The VCE is dedicated to ensuring that Vermont citizens have knowledge of and access to public deliberations by regulatory and other agencies impacting them.

I had a fruitful exchange of views on Friday with Levin and he was an able proponent for his organization's stance, which officially is to ensure an inexpensive, if not free, hard-wired alternative to a wireless smart meter. I found that reasonable.

Through what he characterized as collegial conversations with two of the state's three largest utilities—Central Vermont Public Service and Green Mountain Power—those two utilities now offer an opt-out option that leaves the analog meter in place and charges $10 per month to cover manual meter reading. Those two utilities are set to begin their smart meter deployments any day now. (Thanks to Todd Kowalczyk, CVPS SmartPower program manager, who pointed out that CVPS does not offer a hard-wired alternative to interval meters, merely the manual read of legacy meters.)

Levin was cagey in that he said VCE will continue to advocate a hard-wired alternative for all, yet he will not say that VCE is working to someday have the wireless meters removed and replaced by hard-wired meters. You can speculate on that distinction.

Although Levin was gracious, patient, intelligent, articulate and dedicated to a respectful exchange of views—a primary motivator for me to bring this to your attention—as I played the role of devil's advocate, many of the seeming inconsistencies of other wireless or wired smart meter protestors came to mind.

You can examine several links provided here to get a fuller picture, but in summary here are a few of the issues and Levin's responses. (See Bloomberg Businessweek's "Smart Meters Raise Privacy, Health Concerns in Vermont," or Vermont Public Radio's "Protestors Question Benefits of Smart Meters.")

As Vermonters heard from their utilities that wireless smart meters were coming and they read about concerns elsewhere, they naturally wanted to know more, according to Levin.

Levin argued that with thousands of people testifying that they are experiencing radio-frequency sensitivity, that there must be something to it.

"We believe in anecdotes," he told me. "We believe in science, but we believe in anecdotes. It's not possible that this is all due to hypochondrial madness. So accommodations for those who wish to opt out must be made."

Levin argued that unless scientists could explain the health complaints that arose with wireless meter installations that approved levels of RF exposure were subject to question. He further argued that the electronics industry and the power industry in turn may have influenced federal agencies that conducted tests to establish their ostensibly safe limits.

If RF exposure levels set by the federal government for wireless smart meters are suspect, then aren't the levels set for microwave ovens, cell phones and Wi-Fi routers also suspect? Yes, Levin agreed. Then if those devices are potentially impacting human health, where were the complaints prior to smart meter rollouts and why doesn't VCE campaign against all RF-emitting devices?

Levin argued that those devices are "voluntary," but wireless smart meters presented an "involuntary" intrusion of RF emissions into the home.

If the total "RF load" is causing health impacts, then why pick on smart meters?

"That's not our fight right now," Levin said. "We are concerned that citizens with RF sensitivity who wish to lower their overall RF load have the right to their viewpoint. Electro-sensitivity is real."  

Finally, for an organization that accepts that global warming is caused by human activity—by far the consensus view of scientists worldwide—how could VCE take the strictly minority view on RF standards and health impacts?

Levin repeated the argument that officially safe levels of RF exposure may have been unduly influenced by industry and that, anyway, a hard-wired alternative exists—why not use it?

I pointed out the much greater cost associated with hard-wired solutions and posited that a patchwork system might not work as intended.

"It's up to the utilities to sell this to us," Levin said.

And that's where we left it. I found Levin personally more engaging and admired his ability to counter every argument and have ready answers for many questions, while acknowledging the limits of his own expertise to establish the absolute facts in each case. That's fundamentally different from the folks in California who have been incapable of rational give-and-take with me.

My take?

If Vermont utilities can provide opt-out alternatives and still make their systems work and not place the financial burden of the few onto the many, then it doesn't matter why individuals opt-out. No harm done.

My personal concerns go to data privacy, which has been inadequately addressed technically and in terms of public relations.

I don't buy any of Levin's arguments, but his ability to present his case in a rational manner—again, arguments aside—was noteworthy. I'd suggest it represents the mainstreaming of the rejection of science—at least the kind practiced by government regulators—and the mainstreaming of second-guessing around smart grid. (Levin said he favored a smarter grid, particularly around its use to cut greenhouse gas emissions.)

I repeat my wake-up call to the industry. But I leave it to the industry to tell me what dots it's connecting. Readers, you connect the dots and tell me what you think.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily







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"That's not our fight right now"??

It took me awhile to review all the points brought up by this article as well as the points presented by the oppositions' articles.  Nothing stated in this article nor the comments put forth by the opposition has changed my position on smart meters, but I could have appreciated the sincerity of their concern until I got to the statement: "That's not our fight right now".  This statement bothered me and raises a flag as to why is there all this fight around smart meter RF pollutions and why the opposition groups, if they are indeed concerned, not willing to address all existing RF pollution?  If smart meters are dangerous in their minds, then the statement in the opposition's article by William Irwin, head of radiological health for the Vermont Health Department, who said "that exposure to cell phones is a top concern for researchers worldwide in the field of radiological health. Until more is known, he urged limiting exposure to cell phone signals, especially for children", should be driving their arguments. 

The opposition says, "We believe in anecdotes", so here are my analogies:


  • If the RF health pollution is their concern, then it should be handled like secondary cigarette smoke and all RF pollution sources be included in their demands and pursued equally.  The opposition's focus should be directed at the federal government's RF standards and the levels it has set, which all communication industries follow.  These standards have been in place for decades and are under continued refinement and scientific verification.  As of yet, neither the federal government nor any other government body federal or foreign issued any strict opposition to approved and certified public communication devices.  Smart meters fall into this group and many studies show they produce less radiation than cell phones or other popularly used communication devices.


  • The existing cell phone, government, and private RF signals are like a secondary smoke cloud.  They are present everywhere at all times and not, as was stated by Mr. Levin, as a "voluntary," verses "involuntary" intrusion of RF emissions into the home.  This would indicate a need for the opposition to pursue the banning of all cell phones, wireless Wi-Fi (public and Private) from all public places and neighborhoods.  These wireless communication devices are all growing much faster than the smart meter population.  These devices also include the wireless interfaces to the Xbox, Wii, Playstation and other gaming devices.


  • The opposition groups would also have to take the Opt-Out argument to the auto industry and include the On-Star and other vehicular communication systems.  Just because someone does not subscribe to the services does not mean that the systems, which are installed as a standard option on some models, cannot be used to provide their information to government agencies or others.  This includes the onboard computers which law enforcement and insurance companies want to and in some places are using to extract vehicle information after accidents or traffic stops.  Of particular concern should be the GPS systems in cell phones which are standard equipment in every new cell phone.  These present more privacy concerns than any information that will be provided by a Smart Meter.


If the oppositions' concerns are truly about the public's health exposure to these RF signals and the privacy of the information that smart meters produce, then the groups should include all the violators and not single out one particular industry.  How can you accurately say it is the smart meters doing the damage while not addressing all the others?  If parents are giving their children cell phones, then based on the opposition's arguments, you are giving them cigarettes.  That is a harsh statement, but if you really believe this communication technology is as bad as they say, then that should be the level of their passion and it should be  addressed to the proper federal authorities who control the standards. 


Contrary to popular belief, the electricity costs in the US are among the lowest in the world.  The only ones with lower costs are countries where their electric production is heavily subsidized by their governments.  If we wish to remain a first world nation, then finding and developing smarter and more efficient ways to produce and use that electricity is of extreme importance.  Electricity lies at the very heart of our quality of life. 


Richard G. Pate

Pate & Associates, Principal 


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Industry Needs to Communicate Smart Meter Benefits

The thing that strikes me most about the discussions around the RF issue - and your article was excellent, Phil - is that the industry does a poor job of communicating smart meter benefits.  The usual language is something like, "They will help consumers manage their energy better."  

Consumers are smart; they don't believe in generalities.  We, the industry, need to be specific: smart meters will allow them pricing options so they can save if they want to use cheaper off peak power, they'll get details on how they use energy so they can understand which uses cause their bills to be higher, and they'll be able to get automated devices such as smart thermostats that act automatically to reduce their consumption and save them money.

Smart Meter Distractions

First, let me comment that Vermont continues to be a progressive voice of reason regarding electricity and sustainabiilty, notwithstanding the distraction of the smart meter "health" debate discussed in your excellent article. Updating the utilitiy infrastructure with intelligent endpoints, aka Smart Meters, is merely a first wave in a modernization of our nation's most critical infrastructure to meet the needs of the 21st century. If the price of electricity were to be raised to reflect its true value, then business cases for smart meters and smart grids would be lay-down hands, as my grandparents used to say when we played dominoes way back when. It is only the very low cost of electricity and the relative novelty of technologies that keep the business case tight (although studies consistently show a postive ROI for smart grid), and the numbers will improve over time with experience and technological progress. As you explain in your article, the rash of anti-Smart Meter health objections are a distinct minority, largely born of fear and ignorance, in my opinion, but in our society, they can and should be accommodated. With costs properly assigned, such objections may be worked around with wired solutions or manual reads.

The smarter consumer, however, will seek out other means to become more sophisticated and to gain energy independence from grid-provided power, as distributed energy resource options become increasingly attractive. Spending too much time on the arcane issue of the meter is simply a distraction of an ill-informed minority, confused by the level of change and fearful of the potential for disruption, not to mention being subject to demagoguery. While we must address this vocal minority lest their claims gain greater credence, utilities would do well to step up their education efforts so that alternative consumer conversations can compete in the media regarding the positive impacts of energy modernization, as found in emerging innovative applications associated with distributed generation, smart buildings, electric vehicle integration, and on the horizon, affordable energy storage alternatives.

John Cooper, President, Ecomergence



No economic benefit from Smart Meters & Opposed to blanket rollo

I live in Connecticut, where both of our investor owned EDCs have AMR systems that offer time of use rates. I disagree with your premise that non-Smart Meters should be charged $10 per month.  On the contrary, I believe people that want to be the first with Smart Meters should choose an alternative residential rate with a higher customer chargeto recover the extra costs associated with the Smart Meter system installation and the stranded costs with our existing AMR.  Our major utility CL&P showed less than a $15 net benefit over 20 years.  That was filled with a bunch of assumptions that tried to attribute all kinds of phony savings to Smart Meters.  If you have central AC and live in a huge energy hog house or your are a Blackberry generation, gadget guru, you can sign up for Residential Rate SM with your Smart Meter  and pay the extra cost.  Yes Smart Meters are the next generation of meters, but a blanket roll-out costing $1Billion, before a tested-industry standard is in place would be a huge mistake for Connecticut ratepayers.  I have my $100 electric bill, I do not want or need a Smart Meter.

Collaboration in VT

Thanks for the thoughtful commentary on Vermont, Phil.  And thanks for pushing back a bit on some of the arguments being presented against smart meters. I would argue there are not "thousands" of anecdotes in Vermont of RF caused health impacts.  At most, we have seen perhaps "tens" of them presented by VCE and others.  And organizations that base their claims on anecdotal evidence need to be open minded to a variety of causes for anecdotal symptoms, not just smart meters.

I am please with the current state of the opt-out policy in Vermont, developed with the help of VCE. We have the most flexible and lowest cost program that I am aware of nationally.  It is the right thing to do to give customers choice.

Thanks for weighing in

Yes, much of what's going on in Vermont sounds progressive and well-coordinated among utilities and stakeholders. Just to clarify my column, I favor opt-out policies if those who do so pay the cost and that cost is real (i.e., not inflated to discourage opt-outs).

I agree with you that anecdotes are not science and should not be used to shape our approach to grid modernization. Electricity is the lifeblood of our economy and using anecdotes to shape public policy is a very bad idea. In the case of climate change, the anti-science shenanigans have led the government to back away from simple air pollution controls -- a reversal of decades of public policy. Again, in this case, the opt-out option is the answer.

I think every ratepayer in Vermont should be aware that VCE is against wireless meters and Levin in my conversation with him said that the RF fields created by the mesh network were also a concern -- so for the VCE, the issue goes beyond individual smart meters to the system itself, and VCE continues to argue against wireless  in favor of hard-wired meters. That'll cost ratepayers plenty if and when such a policy is adopted retroactively.

Regards, Phil Carson