Trying to change minds in smart-meter debate

Retired EPA attorney leads the opposition in Maryland

March 22, 2013|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Concerns about utility smart meters are frequently dismissed as tinfoil-hat paranoia. But it's not so easy to dismiss Jonathan Libber.

The Baltimore man delivers his arguments against the wireless devices in the calm manner of an attorney. He is, in fact, an attorney — retired from the Environmental Protection Agency, a point he notes when he reminds people of the country's spotty record of figuring out environmental hazards before they're widespread.

As the force behind Maryland's smart-meter opposition, Libber is spending the early part of retirement in a way he'd never envisioned. He hadn't even heard of the devices until 2011. Now, as president of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness, he's burning 30 to 40 hours a week answering anxious questions, writing testimony and speaking to community groups — pro bono.

It's had some effect. Maryland's Public Service Commission, which said it hadn't found convincing evidence of risks to customers regarding health and other issues, nevertheless decided in January that "the public interest requires" an alternative to standard smart meters if a customer requests it.

Commissioners are pondering what sort, warning that an alternative would come with an extra charge. A committee in the House of Delegates, asked by Libber's group to mandate a free opt-out, recently decided to study the issue over the summer after killing a similar bill last year.

For now, customers can defer without a fee by writing their utility. More are doing so than the 1 percent that companies expected. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. says nearly 3 percent of customers have deferred in the communities where installation is under way or complete.

"The fact that 3 percent are opting out without any kind of information at all, except for what they're probably hearing from us on the website, is quite astonishing," Libber said.

Meters that communicate wirelessly with utilities are replacing analog meters by the millions nationwide, pitched as a way to cut operational costs, give utilities instant information about outages and offer customers near-real-time data about their energy use so they potentially can lower their bills.

The loosely organized opposition to smart meters is varied, and so are the complaints. Tea partiers and Green Partiers, liberal Californians and conservative Texans have argued that the meters can cause health problems, or can be hacked, or give utilities too much information about customers' daily lives, or can overheat and cause fires, or underdeliver on financial benefits. Or all of the above.

The attorneys general of Connecticut, Illinois and Michigan are among the skeptics — based on cost. All three have said in the past few years that smart-meter plans in their states do not clearly benefit consumers, given the multimillion-dollar installation costs.

BGE, which began installing smart meters last year and expects to finish in 2014, wasn't permitted to start charging customers upfront. It will have to ask later for reimbursement of the $282 million not covered by a federal grant. BGE says it also will pass along operational savings, which it estimates at $2.5 billion over 10 years.

"We will be held to that commitment," said Robert L. Gould, a BGE spokesman.

Change of heart

Libber, 59, came to the cause after 31 years at the EPA, where he redesigned how environmental-violation penalties are calculated. Shortly after he retired at the end of 2010, his neighbor, Kate Kheel — concerned about impending smart-meter installations — asked for his help with the local opposition.

There wasn't much to it then — just a few people pointing to concerns from the West Coast.

"I initially was not that impressed," said Libber, sitting in his home in the Cheswolde neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore. "I thought, 'Ah, some kind of stuff from California. Whatever.' "

That would have been that, Kheel said, except that a mutual friend insisted they ask again — handing over 100 to 150 pages of articles about smart meters.

"I started reading the information, and I was quite concerned," Libber said.

Kheel called Libber's change of mind a turning point. Afterward, the activists formed Maryland Smart Meter Awareness and raised enough money — about $10,000 — to print yard signs, bumper stickers and other materials. They testified before regulators and the General Assembly, and attracted nearly 500 members.

Kheel, the group's vice president, said Libber brings a dispassionate eye to an emotional issue.

"He presents well to the public," she said. "There are some people in the group who are more upset by this — and angered by it — and we might be more vocal, and he's constantly saying, 'No, first of all, let's not speak irrationally, let's make sure the studies are there.' ... He's helped our image as an organization."

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