After a few months of negotiation between the Madison Water Utility and a group of Madison residents, a rate structure is in place to allow utility customers to opt out from having a smart meter.
The smart meter -- or advanced metering infrastructure as they are known within the industry -- uses radio frequency waves to transmit information, similar to a cellphone or a Wi-Fi computer network.
In this case, the meters transmit water usage information from the homes of utility customers to the Madison Water Utility’s main office on East Olin Avenue. The utility is in the process of upgrading meters across the city, to allow for monthly billing and closer tracking of water usage.
The citizens’ grass-roots effort to provide a means for customers to refuse the new, high-tech meters was begun for a number of reasons, including privacy and health concerns.
Dolores Kester, the lead petitioner, called the utility’s opt-out policy, which was approved by the Public Service Commission last week, a “reasonable starting point.”
The utility dropped a proposed $79.38 opt-out fee. For those who want the smart meter mounted outside their home (within 300 feet), there is a one-time $50.69 fee. For those who prefer to keep their analog meter, there is a monthly $7.78 fee to have a utility employee visit their home four times a year to read the meter.
In comparison, California’s Pacific Gas & Electric charges a $75 opt-out fee and a monthly $10 fee to manually read meters; Portland Electric charges a $224 opt-out fee and a monthly $54 manual read fee; and Nevada Energy charges its customers an opt-out fee ranging from $98.75 to $107.66 and a monthly reading fee ranging from $7.61 to $11.0.
“What they put forward is the result of a lot of back and forth,” says Kester, a retired attorney. “When we first brought up the idea, they didn’t like it. But they kept talking to us through the summer and into the fall. What we have now is a reasonable place to start.”
Robin Piper, the utility’s smart meter program manager, echoed her sentiments.
“Overall, I’m pleased with what we’ve ended up with,” Piper says. “We were able to accomplish in about four months what other communities have taken years to do.”
Indeed, rifts between utilities and their customers have become heated across the country as users expressed worries about privacy and health effects from the cutting-edge meters. In some cities in California, utilities had to resort to using law enforcement to obtain access to people’s homes.
But in Madison, a city known for its vocal citizenry, especially on public policies, the back and forth was much more civil.
To date, 664 customers have requested to opt out from having a smart meter installed, Piper says. Kester is among them.
She says there are too many unresolved issues surrounding the meters.
On the privacy question, Piper says the meters don’t record instantaneous water usage but collect data on a daily basis.
As for the health effects, critics point to a recent American Academy of Environmental Medicine position paper saying the high-frequency waves emitted by smart meters and other similar devices are not safe for pregnant women, those with cardiac arrhythmia, neurological disorders or radio frequency sickness.
Catherine Kleiber, of Waterloo, has been speaking out for years about the health risks associated with smart meters. She says she and her two boys suffer from radio frequency sickness. She now lives off the electric grid completely and home schools her sons.
She says a recent trip to Madison made them all ill. So while an opt-out program is a step forward, she says, it does nothing to protect sensitive individuals from the larger network that is being created to accommodate the water utility's data-gathering system.
Given the existing cellphone and Wi-Fi networks, the utility is only adding to the problem, she says.
“For people that are experiencing health problems, it (the opt-out program) is probably insufficient,” Kleiber says.