By now, many people are aware that in order to opt out of a smart meter installation, an upfront fee of $75 — payable in three installations starting July 2014 — and an additional $11 to $17 per month will need to be paid, as ordered by the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC).
While my organization, Maryland Smart Meter Awareness (MSMA), is certainly grateful that the PSC decided to grant a permanent opt out, the fees greatly undermine public choice as only those who can afford to pay will be able to opt out. Nevertheless, many people who for reasons of health, privacy or safety, would strongly prefer to keep their analog meter, will be forced to accept a smart meter due to these fees.
The harsh reality is that the PSC and the utilities have failed to justify the fees. The proposals submitted to the PSC by the utilities contained costs that were clearly inappropriate, speculative and in total conflict with the actual expenses for implementing an opt-out program. In addition, the utilities failed to give opt-out customers any credit for savings that would accrue to the utilities for those keeping their analog meters. So opt out customers will, in effect, be double charged: once for opt-out fees and then again for smart meters they don't have, just as soon as rate increases to cover the smart meter program are approved by the PSC. In essence, these fees are really "protection money" that allow well-to-do customers to be left alone.
Many ratepayers who accepted a smart meter have found that their bills have increased dramatically, according to a log of PSC complaints obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request. In some cases, bills have doubled or tripled. So it is not at all clear that accepting a smart meter will ensure lower bills.
Regardless of the fees, the threats posed by smart meters remain. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM), the organization that trains doctors for board certification in environmental medicine, is calling for more research into the effects of smart meters and for a moratorium on their installations. Yet remarkably, the utilities have never conducted any studies on the health effects of smart meters.
In 2012, the AAEM wrote to the California Public Utilities Commission: "The current medical literature raises credible questions about genetic and cellular effects, hormonal effects, male fertility, blood/brain barrier damage and increased risk of certain types of cancers from [radio frequence or extremely low frequency] levels similar to those emitted from 'smart meters.' Children are placed at particular risk for altered brain development, and impaired learning and behavior." Short term health effects, according to a more recent statement of the AAEM, include an assortment of symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, heart palpitations and fatigue.
In addition, for anyone accepting a smart meter, privacy invasions are still a concern as energy readings every 15 minutes allow for the utilities to amass, use, store and sell mammoth amounts of data. Ultimately, when smart meters start communicating with each of our major appliances, we will be handing over to our utilities the power to remotely control our appliances.
Smart meter fires and damage to appliances are of great concern as well. While Underwriters Laboratories (UL) recently certified two of the many smart meter designs, none of the designs being used in Maryland are currently UL certified. Nor do utilities take responsibility for damaged appliances; thus, if an appliance is out of warranty, the homeowner will most likely be the one footing the repair bill or replacing the appliance. And of course, UL Certification does not in any way address health concerns beyond basic electrical issues.
The good news is that this not the end of the story on opt out fees. We will have another opportunity in the upcoming legislative session to address this issue, and at that time, we expect to have a lot of irate Maryland residents joining in our efforts. In the meantime, we still do encourage people to opt out of a smart meter installation if at all possible — even with these unfair and unjustified fees.
Jonathan D. Libber is president of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.To respond to this commentary, send an email to email@example.com. Please include your name and contact information.