Grappling with the smart meter opt-out question

As Glendale and Burbank wait for a state commission to weigh in on whether individual customers can opt out of installation of smart meters, the number of those who want to do so has grown in Burbank.

The number of residents who have asked to not have a new smart meter installed in their home has doubled to 117 since the first so-called “opt out” list was compiled in September. Burbank officials say honoring the request could have financial implications for customers.

Burbank Water and Power began installing the smart meters — which provide real-time digital information on energy consumption, and which automatically communicate directly with the utility that owns them — in June. But a small group of residential customers has steadfastly opposed them, claiming that radiowave emissions from the meters affect their health.

Despite a bevy of official reports showing that emissions are within federal guidelines, the City Council last week agreed to study options for residents to opt out.

Joanne Fletcher, assistant general manager of customer service and marketing for the utility, said 117 residents requested the delay of replacement of their analog meters, slightly more than double the 55 customers on the list in September. Still, she said, the group represents a small percentage of Burbank Water and Power’s customers.

About 42,000 residential meters have been replaced so far, and crews have begun switching over meters for businesses.

Utility officials say the analog meters have reached the end of their life. They say that the smart meters are more efficient, and that they eliminate the need for meter readers. The technology also will allow the utility to better manage its power supply to take advantage of less expensive off-peak demand times.

But those who oppose the transition insist the meters cause insomnia, debilitating headaches and other health issues. Similar claims have hounded Glendale Water & Power, which earlier this month attempted to dispel the claims with an expert panel at a public meeting.

If Burbank capitulates and directs officials to accommodate the opt-out list, Burbank Water and Power would effectively be operating two systems.

“That’s what we need to figure out,” Fletcher said.

Manual entry of the information from remaining analog meters by meter readers may be involved, and managing account and rate information is also key, she said.

With two systems, there is also the potential for billing errors, Fletcher said.

Kiku Iwata — a Burbank resident and member of Burbank ACTION who has spoken out against the new meters — said the city is just a “small piece of the big pie” when it comes to opposition of the meters.

She cited opposition in Northern California, and a planned roll-out in Vermont, where customers have an opportunity to opt out from the beginning for a $10 monthly charge.

But a fee doesn’t sit well with Iwata.

“Why should we pay for something we didn’t ask for?” she said.

There are other options.

If residents are objecting to the radio frequencies that emanate from the meters — which are similar to those generated by cell phones and microwaves — the utility could eliminate that function, Fletcher said.

“So if we stop that, there shouldn’t be a health issue,” she said.

The California Public Utilities Commission could make a final decision on an opt-out proposal Jan. 12. Many cities, including Glendale and Burbank, both of which are in the forefront of the smart-grid movement, are looking to mirror that decision.

The cost of the work-around is something Burbank must still address, Fletcher said.

“That’s what I have to put pencil-to-paper about and determine exactly what that would mean,” Fletcher said. “That’s the $10,000 question.”

 

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