PNM plan opens new front in ‘smart’ meter battle
Written by Benjamin Fisher on April 12, 2016
Opponents of the so-called “smart” water meters being installed by the town of Silver City gathered Monday to protest the installation of more of the controversial meters, now proposed by electric utility PNM. The power company has submitted a proposal to the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission to replace approximately 531,000 analog meters with new radio-read automated meters.
These “smart” meters emit minute but continuous electromagnetic pulses containing information on the flows through each of the utility’s connections. This gives the utility provider minute-by-minute data of usage — which in this case will mean electricity.
PNM is a private company and the state’s largest electricity provider. It connects more than 500,000 New Mexico residents from Clayton to Lordsburg to its electric grid. As such, it is regulated by the PRC.
While many scientists, governments and companies insist these meters are safe, another group of scientists, governments and individuals insist they pose a threat to the health, privacy and/or security of the utility customer. About a dozen of these individuals picketed in front of Silver City’s City Hall on Monday morning with signs protesting these alleged threats.
“Smart Meters are Dumb!” read what was perhaps the frankest sign. “No Opt-out Fees! No Extortion!” read another.
“I’m out here because I’m a mother, and what’s happening with our children being exposed to not only [electromagnetic frequencies] but chemicals too is outrageous,” said resident Rachael Bighley. “Children are dying before their parents.”
Those who believe the “smart,” or radio-read, meters are health hazards claim they can cause a laundry list of symptoms, from anxiety to fevers and seizures. This is especially true, they say, for people with electromagnetic hypersensitivity — who one protester called the canaries in the proverbial coal mine. Opponents insist that while symptoms were often immediate in those with electromagnetic hypersensitivity, the constant pulsing of the frequencies from the meters will affect everyone in time.
PNM, however, like the town before them, denies claims of health effects.
“No credible evidence shows any threat to human health from RF emissions at or below RF exposure limits developed by the Federal Communications Commission,” PNM Public Information Officer Jodi McGinnis wrote in a statement. “With over 25,000 articles published on the topic over the last 30 years, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals.”
Some protesters were concerned about security threats through the smart grid these meters would extend. “We know the smart grid is hackable,” said Louise Hummingbird, relating a common fear of some smart meter opponents. “People from anywhere could get in there and shut the whole thing down.”
Others were concerned about their privacy being infringed upon by the meters’ constant data stream. “They can track your activity throughout your house based on how much electricity each device uses,” said Mary Walker. “They know when you open the refrigerator, when you turn on your TV, everything.”
Still other protesters worry that the installation of smart meters will cause rate increases for energy use. These would raise their bills even beyond the upcoming 15.8 percent increase the company is making to cover investment costs.
McGinnis said that if the PRC approves the request to install the smart meters, PNM would indeed submit a second request to increase rates to pay for those installations — what the company calls cost recovery.
But, McGinnis also claimed that PNM projections show that in the 20 years following the smart meters’ installation, customers would actually end up paying less.
“The important thing to remember is that while it would be an increase, over the course of 20 years, customers would save $20.9 million over what they’re paying now,” she said. “The cost savings would primarily be generated through a reduction in related positions, increased operational efficiencies, fewer vehicles and fuel costs, and other administrative savings.”
Many of the protesters didn’t buy that. “Somebody is gaining, but it isn’t us,” Bighley said.
In addition to saving money, PNM said the meters could also help users save energy by having a better idea of what they are using. “The ability for customers to monitor their electricity usage and take control over their energy consumption and monthly bills” was cited as a major benefit of the new technology in the statement from PNM.
“We’ve been given this whole smokescreen that these meters save electricity or save water,” Hummingbird said, as a “Smart meters = Rate increase” sign bobbed in a picketer’s hand behind her. “But that’s not true. Meters can’t do any of that. They just record.”
That constant recordkeeping, though, is a perk for companies like PNM. The company’s statement said it would improve billing accuracy, give users the ability for customers to pick their own payment date, allow for immediate service connection and disconnection, and alert the company when power goes out, making service restoration faster.
Both these benefits and the protests against them mirror those that preceded the town of Silver City’s ongoing installation of smart meters on their water system.
Town Manager Alex Brown said that as of April 7, 62 percent of the 5,800 meters the town will ultimately replace have been switched out — around 3,600 meters. The new meters have been placed on both residential and commercial service connections.
Many of the protesters’ signs pointed to the fact that Silver City has made the installation of these meters mandatory for all buildings attached to town water. Since any building within 300 feet of a town water main must hook up to town water, according to Brown, that is virtually everyone.
The transition of the water system from analog to radio-read meters has not been an easy one. Many residents have posted signs indicating that they do not consent to the new meter being installed on their property. Others have interacted with installation crews in person. These interactions have gone several ways.
Bighley, for one, sent a certified letter to the town, informing them that she did not consent to the meter’s installation at her home. She also posted a sign stating as much next to her meter. When the crew came to make the installation, they informed her that whenever they see a sign like that they have to call town officials. This crew did so, and a member of the town staff came out to “baby-sit,” she said.
So, she called the police. “I made a police report so there will be a paper trail,” Bighley said.
Brown said that even if a resident does call the police, the water meter is on public right of way, so they can’t really do anything about it.
“Eventually I let them, because I didn’t want to lose water,” Bighley said.
That is apparently a legitimate concern. “If they didn’t want the [new] meters, we were pulling the old meters anyway, so yes, their water would have been off until they accepted the new meter,” Brown said.
Susan Porter is another resident who posted a sign voicing her lack of consent. When she addressed the installation crews, they allegedly told her that the meters “only transmit once a month.” She informed them that they actually transmit in continuous pulses.
“It is unfair for their supervisors to expect them to lie to the public. I don’t blame them,” said Pamela Morgan.
If the PRC does give the PNM smart meter plan the go-ahead, McGinnis said the company would “begin full rollout of advanced meters beginning in 2018, which would continue through mid-2019.”
Benjamin Fisher may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.