The prosperous Chicago suburb of Naperville might seem an unlikely spot for a large protest against “smart meters” that utilities have begun installing across the United States.
Yet in this normally quiet community, foes of the city’s $22 million smart grid program managed to deliver a petition with more than 4,200 names that calls for the city to hold a referendum to halt its program. A nasty battle has ensued since the petition was delivered last year with charges and countercharges over the validity of the names in a typical Chicagoland political fight.
“We have four main objections,” said Lisa Rooney, an organizer with Naperville Smart Meter Awareness. “The cost, the security, health and privacy – all of those fall under the guise of freedom of choice and personal property rights. We want the freedom to choose what type of technology is installed on our homes.”
That message increasingly resonates with smart grid opponents as utilities take advantage of President Obama’s $4.5 billion initiative in 2009 to help develop and upgrade the nation’s electrical infrastructure.
Why smart meters?
Smart meters are seen as linchpin of a smarter grid. They allow utilities to begin instituting time-of-day pricing, offering consumers an opportunity to save money by cutting power use during periods of peak demand.
In some scenarios a consumer could even have a utility manage their electric use in return for a break on bills. Utilities, meanwhile, could improve management of power distribution – including responding to outages more quickly — and potentially avoid making large investments in new generation capacity.
Naperville isn’t the only city facing a backlash over new metering technology. In St. Paul, Minnesota, a program to install wireless water utility meters met with resistance over health concerns that led to an opt-out option for homeowners.
In Michigan, where more than 600,000 meters are being installed by DTE Energy, four communities with a collective population of 311,000 have asked the Michigan Public Service Commission to provide an opt-out to consumers and to investigate various concerns over the smart grid program.
In California, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has installed 8.7 million smart meters but was forced by the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to allow consumers to opt out.
A national website, StopSmartMeters.org, tracks the budding movement and has reported 47 communities have halted their installations.
Industry advocates, however, say the concerns of protesters are largely unfounded, and the size of the protests indicate few people have complaints even after more than 20 million smart meters have been installed.
“I think the protests are small compared to all the people in the United States and the meters in the U.S.,” said James W. Morozzi, president & CEO of The Washington, D.C.-based Gridwise Alliance, which lobbies for smart grid technologies. “It’s a very small percentage that has voiced any issues or complaints.”
In St. Paul, where the city’s water utility is spending $18 million to install 94,000 new digital meters that will largely remove the need for a staff of meter readers.
Similar to smart meters, the water meters emit a short low frequency radio wave every 14 seconds which carries data on the water usage of a home or building. A water utility vehicle passing by once every three months, on average, will take a reading and a bill will be sent based on usage.
St. Paul homeowner Petra Bokken and her allies said the main objection to the program has been over health concerns regarding the nearly constant microwave pulse the meters emit. Some residents with meters have complained of headaches and other illnesses they believe have been caused by microwave pulses, she said.