Duke Energy’s plan to bring smart meters to the mountains could put two key concerns — energy conservation and human health — into a head-on collision, critics say. And customers wishing to opt out may have to pay for the privilege. The utility hopes to start installing the new meters early next spring, saying the devices will help reduce peak demand while giving customers a clearer picture of their own energy use.
Last year, the N.C. Utilities Commission approved Duke’s $1 billion modernization plan, which calls for two new gas-fired liits to replace the coal-fired Lake Julian power plant. Smart meters, which are already in widespread use in North Carolina and across the country, could help eliminate the need for a third such unit, the company maintains. But there’s no long-term data about the relatively new technology, and opponents have cited potential health concerns.
Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield supports the switch. “It’s universally accepted that giving people more information about how they use energy is a key step to helping them use less,” she says. “Generally, smart meters give the customer much more control over how and when they use energy.”
Mayfield, who’s also co-director of local nonprofit MountainTrue, represents the city on the Energy Innovation Task Force. Established last spring, the partnership involves Duke Energy, Asheville, Buncombe County and various Western North Carolina businesses and nonprofits. Key goals include reducing the region’s overall energy consumption, which has doubled over the last four decades, and cutting back peak power demand, which has tripled since 1970.
Smart meters, aka “advanced metering infrastructure,” could help meet both those objectives, proponents maintain. The technology helps conserve energy in several ways, task force members say. One key feature is transparency: They provide daily analytic and diagnostic data that’s not available through the current automated meter-reading system. Customers can access real-time information about their energy use through a number of platforms, including a cellphone app, enabling them to adjust their consumption as needed.
Opponents, though, have also raised concerns about privacy.
Duke is still in the initial stages of addressing these matters with the state Utilities Commission. But company executive Robert Sipes remains optimistic that the utility can start installing smart meters in Western North Carolina as early as the first quarter of 2018. “That’s not etched in stone,” he notes. “Other things have to be achieved. But that’s what we’re hoping for.”
Joining the ranks
More than half of U.S. households already have smart meters, according to an October 2016 report by The Edison Foundation: Institute for Electric Innovation, a nonprofit with close ties to the industry. And by 2020, the report predicts, the number of smart meters in use nationwide will jump from 65 million to 90 million. Duke Energy has already installed 940,000 of these devices in North Carolina, with another 1.5 million scheduled for deployment elsewhere in the state. That’s not counting the utility’s 160,000 customers across nine WNC counties.
Duke’s modernization plan calls for replacing the 376-megawatt Lake Julian plant (which is slated to close in 2020) with two 280-MW units. And if peak power demand continues to grow, the utility maintains, an additional 186-MW unit would be needed.
It’s up to the customer
In Asheville, says Sipes, “The peak demand we’re trying to influence is in the winter.” During the colder months, for example, hot water use spikes from 6-10 a.m. “Any kind of heating load that can be delayed to a time after peak — or, for that matter, accelerated to a time before peak — could be beneficial to reducing that peak,” he explains.
This is one place where smart meters could play a crucial role, notes Duke Energy spokesperson Meghan Musgrave Miles. By gaining access to daily and even hourly information about their energy consumption, she maintains, smart meters will help individuals curtail their use.
In 2009, the utility conducted a pilot study in Charlotte, says spokesperson Paige Layne. “Customers who participated saw about an 8 percent reduction in their monthly bill,” she reports. “One participant saw a 34 percent reduction; others experienced increases, possibly related to lifestyle changes that were noted in surveys (e.g., working from home, new baby, more hot water, etc.).”
Some folks, though, are skeptical that greater awareness will automatically lead to reduced usage. Asheville resident Mike Wasmer began attending the monthly task force meetings shortly after it launched last May. An artist, Wasmer also works in home renovation. More recently, he’s added “energy enthusiast” to his résumé.
Consumption, he maintains, will decline only in the case of “somebody who is a ‘prosumer’ — someone who’s going to use the auditing tools that are available and really look at and change the timing of their energy use.” Most consumers, he believes, will remain just that: consumers. For this reason, Wasmer predicts that smart meters will “have a very limited impact” on overall peak energy use.
Miles disagrees, though she concedes, “Ultimately, the action to reduce energy use — or not — during peak demand times or anytime is up to customers and what they’re comfortable with.”
Duke’s existing time-of-use program offers enrollees fluctuating rates: higher during peak demand periods, lower during nonpeak hours. Currently, customers must opt in to the program, but Mayfield says the task force has discussed recommending that variable pricing become the default unless customers opted out.
Smart meters, she points out, would help consumers keep track. “The benefit is that if you pay attention to it, you end up paying less.”
Paying in advance
“One of the downfalls of the current way that folks use electricity,” says Sipes, “is that they turn on switches and things run in their homes without them even knowing about it, and at the end of the month they get a bill, and it’s a big surprise.”
The new system will also change the way customers are charged. “The way electric usage and billing works today, you pay in the rear: You’re paying for something that you’ve already used,” he points out. But the new system includes an option that lets customers pay upfront for a specified amount of energy, like feeding quarters into a parking meter to buy a certain amount of time. They can then track their energy use online or on their smartphone; automatic alerts will tell them when they need to make a payment or adjust their consumption.
“A lot of people like that,” notes Sipes, “because it eliminates the need for a deposit. A big part of electric usage is about behavior,” he continues. “You can only influence behaviors if people know what it is they’re doing that’s causing issues. By having that transparency and visibility, we believe it will … help folks not just reduce usage during peak demand periods but reduce their usage overall.”
Paying to say no
North Carolina’s Public Staff was established in 1977 to represent consumers’ interests. The independent state agency reviews proposed actions by utilities, investigates complaints and makes recommendations to the Utilities Commission to ensure that power companies’ rates are reasonable.
Last year, the Public Staff reviewed a proposed opt-out fee for customers declining to accept the new meters. The agency’s recommendations could also apply to Asheville and Buncombe County residents.
According to Duke, there’s no equipment or installation charge for customers receiving the new meters, since those costs are factored into the current rates.
But if the Utilities Commission gives its approval, anyone wanting to opt out of the program would have to pay a one-time $150 setup fee to cover the administrative work involved in processing the request, followed by a monthly $11.75 nonusage fee (because meter readers would be needed to serve those locations). That works out to $291 the first year and $141 a year after that.
James McLawhorn, director of the Public Staff’s Electric Division, says, “We looked at the proposed fees and how they were derived, and we were able to determine that they were cost-based fees; the calculations were done accurately. That’s not commenting on whether we thought they were appropriate to apply, just that they were based on costs — they weren’t something that [the company] just pulled out of the air.”
Those fees would be a lot lower if they were spread over all of Duke’s customers instead of just the few who opt out (less than 1 percent so far, in the areas where the program’s already in place). But the company prefers not to do it that way. “It just doesn’t seem fair that we would charge other customers for the unique preference that some customers might have,” Sipes explains.
And though the fees haven’t been implemented yet, the Public Staff has received about 60 complaints about them and other aspects of the smart meter program over the past two years, notes McLawhorn. (To view these complaints on the agency’s web page, look up docket no. E-7, sub 1115.)
Some of the roughly 1,400 North Carolina customers who’ve opted out have cited health concerns, says McLawhorn. “But a lot of them have said there could be health impacts, or that they’ve seen studies or read reports and are concerned: They didn’t assert that they’d actually experienced health impacts.”
The root issue is the additional exposure to radio frequencies emitted by the meters. Duke contends that common household items such as microwaves and cellphones emit far more radio frequency than smart meters do. “Whether you believe it or not, the facts are that the amount of electromagnetic frequency is pretty small compared to other sources,” says Sipes. “There has never been any conclusive evidence that EMF causes any health issues.”
Asked about the health concerns, Mayfield said she’s aware of them but doesn’t know enough to comment, adding that the task force hasn’t had time to consider them yet.
Still, Wasmer — who serves on the task force’s Technology Subcommittee — isn’t convinced. “One of the main contentions about the smart meters is that they’re not broadcasting all the time: They’re broadcasting for a few seconds to a minute per hour,” he explains. “But when you cram dozens into a neighborhood or onto an apartment building, you’re starting to fill up a portion of that hour with Wi-Fi signals. People will say, ‘Yeah, it’s just a Wi-Fi signal; it’s no stronger than your cellphone,’ but it has an extensive capacity to increase the signal strength if it’s having trouble communicating.”
Putting the genie back in the bottle
Dr. David Carpenter, a public health physician who serves as director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University at Albany, N.Y., shares Wasmer’s concern about smart meters. On Aug. 2, 2016, Carpenter and four other scientists and health professionals submitted a letter to the Utilities Commission outlining adverse effects.
“With regard to radio frequency fields, the evidence is certainly the strongest for brain cancer resulting from cellphone use,” says Carpenter, who’s also a professor of environmental health science. He concedes, however, that there’s no direct evidence related to smart meters, due in part to the technology’s relative newness. “While there have been measurements of the characteristics of the radiation that comes from the smart meters, there have not been specific health effect studies that have really done what I would call a first-rate study.”
Carpenter says he’s not opposed to new technologies. He just thinks they should be assessed more carefully. “It’s been full speed ahead … without testing them first,” he points out. “That’s happening without any thought, any review of the evidence.”
In August 2015, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services issued a report titled Health Impacts of Advanced Metering Systems (Smart Meters), which states, “There is insufficient evidence to link RF exposures to adverse health outcomes.” In their letter to the Utilities Commission, however, Carpenter and his colleagues strongly dispute this report’s findings, saying it cited unqualified reviewers who relied on industry representatives for their information.
Insufficient evidence, notes Carpenter, is the same argument that was made for decades concerning the relationship between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer. “Press reports that say the results are not conclusive … cast doubt in the mind of everybody,” he points out. “And it just basically says, ‘Ignore the evidence. Don’t bother to look at it. Don’t bother to read it. It’s not conclusive.’”
And that, maintains Carpenter, can lead to big problems later on. “If we implement all these new technologies without really critically looking at these problems,” he warns, “it’s going to be very difficult to undo the damage. We have a long history of other environmental exposures where we brought things on the market without carefully studying them in advance. It’s very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.”
Another source of worry among customers, says McLawhorn, is privacy. In its review, the Public Staff shared this concern, noting that Duke may “need to address who owns the data, how the data can be distributed and privacy issues.”
Sipes, however, maintains that there are “clear and robust laws that prevent [the company] from sharing that information with anyone without permission from the customer.” The Duke executive adds, “Confidentiality and data security are really a big deal to us. We’re very careful not to cross any of those lines.”
Wasmer agrees that this kind of information cannot legally be shared, but he finds it cold comfort — in part because the very analytics and diagnostics that give customers insight into how they’re using energy will also be available to Duke. “Your power provider will know when you are home and when you’re not,” he points out. “Literally. Duke will know when you’re using its services and when you’re not.” This information, continues Wasmer, could also be valuable to potential hackers.
In an email follow-up, Miles responded that smart meters “are very secure and have been tested by Duke Energy and outside firms. … All data sent to and from the meter is fully encrypted, and each meter contains a unique key for authentication on the Duke network.” The utility, she said, is “confident smart meters are safe and customer data is kept private.”
Wasmer, however, isn’t reassured.“That’s just a description of a lock,” he says. “That doesn’t mean the lock is not pickable.”
Coming soon to a neighborhood near you
Whether deployment of these meters starts early next spring, as Sipes hopes, will depend on when the company feels it’s ready to shift its focus to this part of the state. Once a schedule is determined, says Miles, residents will be notified by mail a month in advance. These notices will include a phone number folks can call if they have any questions or concerns or want to opt out.
Energy conservation aside, however, Duke also has a financial incentive for going ahead with the plan. Asked about the potential savings, Layne said there aren’t numbers yet for the WNC deployment. In the other parts of the state, though, the utility estimates “about a $4.5 million reduction in meter reading costs and $22.8 million in operations costs (because we’ll be able to connect and disconnect meters remotely)” over five years. “Those savings,” she noted, “are passed on to customers during rate reviews.”
Sipes, meanwhile, says the switch won’t trigger significant job losses in WNC. Only about 10 meter reader positions will be affected, and those are contract workers hired through a third party.
He also encourages people interested in learning more about the program to attend a task force meeting. “I suspect there will be future dialogue between our folks and committee members to help improve things even more,” he predicts. “I think it’s a great example of how the task force is really helping the community work in partnership with Duke Energy to create that energy future we’re all driving toward.”
To receive updates about future meetings of the Energy Innovation Task Force, email Lauren Sexton at email@example.com.