Smart or dumb? Select board hears meter debate

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Smart meters are a health hazard because of radiation emissions, threaten privacy, and impose an unfair "opt-out" fee on those who don't want them.

The two competing viewpoints on the new metering technology clashed at Tuesday's meeting of the Manchester Select Board. Central Vermont Public Service Corp., Vermont's largest electric utility, along with Green Mountain Power, the state's second largest electric utility and about to become the owners of CVPS, plans to introduce smart meters in Vermont starting in January. The rollout, which has already received approval from the state's Public Service Board, is scheduled to reach the Manchester area shortly after that, possibly in March or April of next year.

Smart meters are interactive devices which have been designed to replace older electric meters which need to be read manually to record electric use. Under the plan envisioned by CVPS and Green Mountain Power, smart meters, using a wireless hookup to the utility, would communicate usage patterns as well as alert the utility when power was off, signaling a possible outage. In theory, electricity consumers will be able to study the information on how they use electricity, and get insights on how they can lower their bills, by using heavy appliances such as dishwashers at off-peak hours, for example.

But a groundswell of opposition to smart meters is emerging to question some of the benefits of the proposed new meters. Martine Victor, a Manchester resident, appeared before the select board Tuesday to urge the board think twice before going along unquestioningly with the proposed deployment of the smart meters.

In places where smart meters have been installed, such as California and Maine - Vermont would be the third state to have them - uproar and controversy have followed over their impact on public health because of the additional radiation they leech into the atmosphere. Along with other devices such as cell phones and WiFi systems, a dangerous cumulative effect is being created, she said.

"The general levels (of radiation) have increased exponentially," she said. "It's a big experiment with ourselves as the guinea pigs."

While the select board has no jurisdiction over whether or not smart meters should or should not be made available, board chairman Ivan Beattie said the issue merited some discussion and debate, and invited Brian Keefe, a Manchester resident and CVPS's vice president for government and public affairs, to make a presentation about the program.

Smart meters fit in to a long involvement CVPS has undertaken to expand its renewable energy portfolio, as well as become a more energy efficient buyer and supplier of electricity, Keefe said.

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"We see smart meters as another part of that quest - to manage the electric load," he said. "From reducing load, you avoid buying additional capacity."

But Victor, along with four other members from the audience of about 15 people who attended the discussion, voiced skepticism over whether the meters would save consumers money, along with raising issues about privacy and an additional $10 per month "opt-out" fee consumers who chose not to have the meters installed in their homes would have to pay. The fee is designed to cover the costs of sending a human meter reader to a home or business.

"It's criminal not to address the health issue - it boils down to money," she said. "People come to Vermont to get away from this stuff." But Keefe, in a rebuttal, took issue with that assertion, disputing that the weight of available scientific evidence linked radio frequency transmissions, such as those produced by smart meters, were linked to any known health hazard.

"I have to say I have a little bit of resentment to the suggestion that there's criminal intent or that we're doing this for the money," he said. "If you listen carefully, nothing implicates smart meters in the entire health issue."

He added that cell phones contribute much higher levels of radio frequency emissions, and went on to note that careful management of electrical use was an important part of any future vision of widespread use of electric cars, an important step towards lowering use of fossil-based fuels, he said. All tolled, CVPS and Green Mountain Power anticipate spending about $138 million to implement a so-called "smart grid" of which smart meters are a vital component. A federal grant of about $69 million will defray about half that projected cost.

While the select board itself has no power to limit of halt the arrival of smart meters, they were open to hearing more from the public about their feelings on the subject, Beattie said. One form that could take was an advisory petition, if one were circulated and received enough signatures, which could become part of the town warning for Town Meeting. But such a vote, if it were to take place at town meeting, would be purely advisory, he said. "This is not something over which the town has a purview," he said.

In other business, town officials announced that a contract totalling about $9,500 for preliminarry design work for a new pol and field house at the Dana Thompson Rec Park has been awarded to Breadloaf construction of middlebury. About $4,000 of that cost will be offset by a grant received from Manchester-based "Right Track" Foundation. A meeting with Breadloaf officials has been set for 5 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 1 at town hall.

The town also released third quarter figures for local option tax revenues. Revenues from the rooms, meals and alcohol tax portion of the local option tax that will accrue to the town totalled $111,775, which represents 70 percent of the money collected and after state administrative fees are deducted. Last year the local option rooms, meals and alcohol tax produced $110,069 in the comparable quarter.

Local option sales tax revenues for the third quarter totalled slightly more than $170,800, which represents a decrease from last year's $177,576.


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