Public outcry crops up over Jefferson County smart meter plan
Rosemary Sikes of Port Townsend shares her concerns at a meeting Monday over the Jefferson County PUD’s plan to implement smart meters. (Cydney McFarland/Peninsula Daily News)
Editor’s note: This article has been changed to reflect a correction to the amount paid to and the name of a meter company.
CHIMACUM — Jefferson County Public Utility District officials agreed to discuss potentially halting the rollout of new “smart meters” after a public meeting in which community members expressed health and privacy concerns as well as unease about the cost and longevity of the new meters.
The meeting Monday night lasted roughly three hours, with more than 100 community members in attendance, many of whom stood or sat on the floor in the Chimacum Fire Hall.
The rollout of the new smart meters was approved in March by PUD commissioners as an upgrade to the current mix of analog and digital meters, as well as a way to cut down on the utility’s carbon footprint.
However, at Monday’s meeting, a number of community members said they felt the project had been pushed through with little public input.
“There needs to be a better democratic process here,” said Julie Dumond.
PUD commissioners had been discussing the implementation of the smart meters in their public board meetings before the project was approved in March.
“In the PUD’s defense, we have had discussions, but we haven’t had this kind of public engagement until recently,” said PUD Commissioner Jeff Randall.
According to PUD Commissioner Wayne King, the board had been discussing smart meters since 2013.
“Where the hell were you at? 2013 is when we started talking about this,” King said.
Many community members spoke in favor of keeping the analog system, but PUD officials have stated the current systems aren’t working. The PUD pays $300,000 per year to Landis and Gyr Meters for data collection on the old meters, they said.
PUD officials also have stated the new meters provide more accurate billing and allow the PUD to more quickly identify outages — without requiring meter readers.
King said in Monday’s meeting that in order to keep up with demand, the PUD would need 40 meter readers, each with his or her own truck, to get to every PUD customer to read analog meters.
“What do you think that would do to your power bill?” King said.
Because the meters are wireless, there were concerns over privacy. While PUD commissioners said they have no plans to sell the data of PUD customers, community members were concerned the system could be hacked.
There was also a concensus that the PUD should wait for better, long-lasting technologies, since the life span on a smart meter is about seven years.
A number of other community members expressed concerns over possible health risks, citing stories from other cities and counties that have implemented smart meters and the 2013 anti-smart meter movie “Take Back Your Power,” which was screened in Port Townsend by the local Smart Meter Objectors Groups (SMOG).
Community members cited the film, saying the RF radiation emitted by the smart meters had been known to cause headaches and other issues.
PUD officials pre-emptively responded to this concern. Earlier in the meeting, PUD citizen advisory board member Thomas Engel did a presentation on RF radiation, which is the same kind of radiation emitted by cellphones.
In his presentation, Engel noted that the radiation emitted by a smart meter is significantly less than that emitted by your average smartphone.
“If you have a cellphone and you don’t think it’s harmful to your health so far then you’re not going to have any issues with the PUD smart meters,” Engel said.
Many community members disagreed.
“Just because there are no studies that say it is absolutely positively causing harm doesn’t mean they’re not causing harm,” said Rosemary Sikes.
“I feel like the communities who implement this technology are the longitudinal studies and they are the guinea pigs,” said Tamara Pratt. “I don’t want to be a guinea pig.”
Randall attended the film screening and King and Commissioner Kenneth Collins said they had also viewed it.
“That ‘Take Back Your Power’ movie is one of the best ways to create paranoia,” King said.
Collins agreed that not all the information he saw in the film or that has been sent to him by community members seemed entirely accurate.
“I agree with Wayne that some of the information I’ve received is not credible, but some of it is,” Collins said.
Despite that, community members pushed for more meetings on the topic before moving forward.
“If our meters are falling apart this solution isn’t enough and I think a room full of people telling you that should be enough to act on it,” said Amiee Ringle.
Both Collins and Randall agreed with community members that there was enough public outcry to warrant further discussion.
Collins said they will continue to discuss what they heard at Monday’s meeting at the next PUD board meeting, which is scheduled for 5 p.m. Nov. 7 at Jefferson Transit, 63 Four Corners Road.
Collins said he is also willing to hold the decision because there could potentially be state funding available for fiber-optic technologies down the line.
“Stepping back for a number of months makes sense,” Collins said. “I’m willing to take some time to see if an opportunity materializes.”