‘Smart’ electric meters come to NJ, bringing fears of Big Brother

‘Smart’ electric meters come to NJ, bringing fears of Big Brother

Story image for smart meter news from NorthJersey.com


Should your power company know — like Santa Claus — when you are sleeping, and when you are awake?

When you are away on vacation? What kind of refrigerator you have and how old it is?

Rockland Electric, which is installing the state’s first “smart” digital meters in Mahwah this month, says the two-way communication between the new meters and the utility will help it predict and ease power outages and better manage its power grid.

The meters have plenty of other upsides for customers: No more meter readers or estimated bills. No need to call when the power goes out. Customers can monitor their power use and get suggestions for energy-saving products and services.

But the improvements come with an array of concerns. Foremost among them is privacy.

The technology, critics say, makes it possible to pinpoint when residents are home and away, and may also reveal what devices and appliances are being used.

“Even sex toys,”  said Jay Stanley, a privacy and technology expert with the American Civil Liberties Union. “Anything that gets plugged into an outlet to be recharged can be identified,” he said.

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The smart meters are being rolled out at a time when there is growing concern about our devices’ ability to spy on us. Enormous amounts of data are collected via smartphones. Laptop cameras are vulnerable to hacking. And recently, an Amazon Echo device recorded a couple’s private conversation and sent it to an acquaintance of theirs.

In response to privacy concerns, the ACLU has initiated challenges to the use of smart-meter data in several states, seeking better regulation over who can access the information and under what circumstances.

Pushback in New Jersey

In New Jersey, legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Ronald Dancer of Ocean County would mandate that utilities disclose the type of data they will harvest, how it will be used and what third parties will have access to it.

“The information gathered from smart meters can also decipher what type of activities a customer is engaged in, such as watching television, using a computer, or how long someone spends cooking,” according to the text of the bill.

Additionally, the bill says, information from the meters “includes unencrypted data that can reveal when a homeowner is away from their residence for long periods of time.”

Rockland dismisses such concerns.

“Smart meters … are safe, secure and reliable encrypted devices that will provide two-way, wireless communication between Rockland Electric and its customers’ electric service,” says a company release announcing the program.  “Smart meters are designed to provide Rockland Electric customers greater convenience, choice and control over their energy use.”

The technology used to interpret energy use by the unique signals each appliance generates has the unwieldy name “nonintrusive appliance load monitoring.”

“There are … indications that they can tell what appliances you have, what types of television programs you are watching because each program has a unique light and dark pattern,” Stanley said.

Electric cars take the surveillance potential one step further, according to Kate Connizzo of the ACLU in Vermont, one of six states with more than 80 percent residential smart-meter penetration.

“Determining how much electricity was required to recharge an electric car, and extrapolating from that how far it had traveled, would seem to be a pretty simple matter,” said Connizzo. “Put all this together with such devices as automated license plate readers, surveillance cameras, facial recognition technology, and you construct a detailed record of a person’s movements and activities.”

Who sees your data?

Who should have access to data generated by smart meters is already being debated in states where their installation is more advanced.

In California, for example, where over 81 percent of customers have smart meters, a privacy law went into effect in January 2014. It prohibits companies from making a customer’s electrical or natural gas usage accessible to a third party without the customer’s permission.

“The law extends the highest level of protection to the privacy of the home,” Stanley said.

“However, there is something called the third-party doctrine, which says if you give information to a third party, it is no longer protected. So the question is: How are the utility companies going to use this information and protect it?”

Rockland’s own privacy statement says they “may share information with third parties to permit them to send marketing communications or information about products and services.”

Rockland says customers can choose not to share their information by unsubscribing from their customer information list. Dancer’s bill would make such notice mandatory.

Sometimes, though, the sharing is obligatory, particularly with law enforcement armed with a subpoena. Police already issue subpoenas to power companies when investigating illicit activities in a neighborhood. By comparing energy use in a group of homes, for example, police can identify a home using high-power lights to grow marijuana in a basement.

Accuracy complaints

Beyond privacy concerns, critics have pointed to other problems with the meters, including accuracy, cost-effectiveness and the potential health effects from radio waves.

Residents of Bakersfield, California, filed a class-action suit in 2009 alleging their bills rose 300 percent once the meters were installed. Pacific Gas and Electric admitted two years later that the Landis+Gyr meters they installed malfunctioned when they got too warm.

Central Maine Power Co. had to appear before a state legislative committee in February to explain why their $200 million smart-meter system left sections of the state without power for a month after an October storm. The system failed to show the full extent of the power failures, including at schools in two towns.

Cost to consumers

Rockland projects the cost of installing smart meters throughout its service area at $16.5 million. Spokesman Michael Donovan projects the savings at $82.1 million over 20 years. Of that, $56.6 million would come from reduced staffing.

Stefanie Brand, director of the state Division of Rate Counsel, which participated in reviewing Rockland’s proposal from a consumer cost standpoint, said she still has “a lot of question whether the cost will exceed the benefits.”

“They are replacing a meter that lasts 20-40 years with one whose technology becomes obsolete,” Brand said. “We’re still paying for the old meters, plus the new meter. That adds to the cost.”

Brand said there are “other technologies that could be put on the wires that are a lot cheaper.”

“The question is: What are we getting for our money?” Brand said.

Mahwah is pilot program for NJ

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 47 percent of the 150 million electricity customers in the U.S. now have smart meters.

Rockland’s installation was approved by the state’s Board of Public Utilities and the Division of Rate Counsel last August. Eventually, 73,000 Rockland customers in Bergen, Passaic and Sussex counties will receive the meters in what is being termed a “study” or trial program.

“Rockland is the only company authorized to install smart meters and infrastructure in New Jersey,” said Peter Peretzman, a BPU spokesman. “The board won’t approve any other smart-meter programs until this study is completed. The program will take three years to build out, and then another one or two years of data to review.”

Installations began May 1, with an estimated 1,500 devices already installed in Mahwah. Rockland is a subsidiary of Orange & Rockland Utilities in New York, which has installed 60,000 of the meters in neighboring Rockland County.

“The smart-meter rollout has been extremely positive,” Donovan said. “Customers are anxious to receive their smart meter and start to see the benefits it provides.”

Customers who do not want the smart meters must notify Rockland Electric in writing, by using a form available on the website.

Customers who opt out of the smart-meter installation will be charged $15 a month. Those who opt out after the smart meter is installed will be charged $45 to have it removed.


MI-Woman faces misdemeanor for swapping electric meter

Traverse City, MI


Woman faces misdemeanor for swapping electric meter

Woman faces misdemeanor for swapping electric meter

Record-Eagle/Tessa Lighty Heatherlee Yorty is being criminally charged for utility fraud after disabling her Cherryland Electric automated metering system. Yorty believes the smart meter is giving her a myriad of health problems.

SUTTONS BAY — Heatherlee Yorty contends she noticed immediate improvements to her health when she removed a pair of electricity meters from the side of her home.

But she faces a misdemeanor after Leelanau County prosecutors contended the recent alteration constituted criminal utility fraud.

“I’m going to fight it until my death,” Yorty said. “I will not lay down for these shenanigans.”

Yorty, 63, of Suttons Bay, is charged with two counts of fraudulent use of a public utility after she said she hired a private electrician to replace Cherryland Electric Cooperative’s automated metering system in favor of two outdated, analog models from General Electric.

The automated meters — installed for every Cherryland customer by 2008 — send radio signals through power lines and provide updated electricity readings for company officials, said spokeswoman Rachel Johnson. They also don’t require employees to physically travel to each meter.

Yorty argued electromagnetic frequencies emanating from her meters for years have caused a host of health problems. She said she was forced to relocate her bedroom to another area of the house as the invisible waves “poison” her body and make it nearly impossible to sleep without intense pain.

Yorty provided links to various websites and blogs detailing perceived problems with the technology but no formal scientific consensus has been reached.

Cherryland officials are puzzled by Yorty’s claims that her meters caused harmful side effects. Johnson said most customers have praised the meters for their ability to better monitor their electricity usage. And they’ve saved the company a lot of cash in the last decade.

“We have absolutely no scientific data to support that argument,” Johnson said.

The meter removal itself wasn’t criminal, according to police reports. The issue instead stemmed from the brief period where Yorty’s energy usage went untracked in Cherryland’s system. Officials there could only estimate how much she needed to be billed after the switch, reports state.

Yorty — released on a $5,000 personal recognizance bond ahead of her next court date — said she plans to hire an out-of-state attorney to fight the charges. She maintained her analog meter still tracked her energy usage regardless and noted her intention to sue both Cherryland and the county.

Johnson said Cherryland doesn’t have a legitimate reason to allow customers to use alternative meters or revert back to analog models. Those receiving their energy through Cherryland are required to use the latest technology, she said.

“We’ve had this metering structure for 10 years,” Johnson added. “I can’t overstate the amount of positive feedback we’ve had from our membership in terms of the data they’ve had access to and the fact that we don’t have to drive around reading their meters anymore.”

Yorty — who fired her court-appointed attorney after her last court appearance — could have her criminal case dismissed when it returns to 86th District Court for a motion hearing on May 29. Assistant Prosecutor Tristan Chamberlain declined to comment.