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Utility smart meters raise health, privacy concerns

Catherine Dibara installed a smart meter as part of National Grid’s pilot program in Worcester.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Catherine Dibara installed a smart meter as part of National Grid’s pilot program in Worcester.

Utilities across the country are installing so-called smart meters in homes and businesses to allow them to better track and manage energy use by their customers, aiming to increase efficiency, lower costs, and reduce pollution.

But the advanced meters, which use wireless and digital technologies to send frequent consumption data to utilities, face opposition from customers and others who see them as a threat to health, privacy, and security.

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Already, eight states, including Maine and Vermont, have adopted laws or regulations that make it easier for customers to opt out of smart-meter programs and keep old analog meters. Eight others, including Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., are considering similar measures. Representative Thomas Conroy, Democrat of Wayland, has filed a bill in the Legislature that would give Massachusetts residents the right to say no to smart meters.

“I’ll admit I haven’t done all the research on the alleged or real health effects of smart meter technology,” said Conroy. “But with an abundance of caution from my constituents, the least I could do was offer a piece of legislation to bridge the gap until the science catches up with the potential effects of smart meters, if there are any.”

The opposition to the meters represents a hitch to one of the key energy initiatives of the Obama administration in Washington and Governor Deval Patrick’s administration in Massachusetts — the smart grid. Smart grid proponents hope to incorporate information technology and advanced communications into the production, distribution, and consumption of electricity to make the power system more efficient, less costly, and more environmentally friendly.

A Massachusetts law requires all utilities in the state to undertake pilot programs to test how smart grid technologies, such as advanced meters, can help cut energy use. By more effectively managing supply and demand, smart grid advocates say, the power system can avoid the costs of building new plants and transmission while reducing pollution emitted by plants.

For example, on a hot summer afternoon when the power system is near capacity, utilities monitoring energy use through smart meters might raise thermostats a few degrees in the homes and businesses of willing customers, reducing demand and avoiding the need to start up expensive plants known as “peakers” to meet short-term need. Ultimately, that could lead to lower bills.

“If enough people opt out, it really dampens the positive impacts the technology can have on the system as a whole,” said Shanna Cleveland, senior lawyer at the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy group.

Utilities face opposition from people who see threats to health, privacy, and the security of the nation’s power grid. Opponents say the meters emit dangerous levels of radiation through the radio frequencies that allow communications between the meters, utilities, and “smart” appliances, including thermostats.

In Massachusetts, the opposition has centered on National Grid, which launched a pilot program in Worcester to upgrade meters in 15,000 homes and businesses. If successful, the utility, headquartered in Waltham, may expand the program to other customers.

Smart meters like the one on the right use electromagnetic signals to send data to utilities as often as every 15 minutes.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Smart meters like the one on the right use electromagnetic signals to send data to utilities as often as every 15 minutes.

Halt Smart Meters Massachusetts, which has gathered more than 200 signatures on a petition to Attorney General Martha Coakley opposing the National Grid program, said electromagnetic frequencies emitted by the meters — similar to those from cellphones — cause insomnia, ringing ears, headaches, anxiety, nausea, and other problems for people who are “electromagnetic sensitive.”

“They are blanketing our environment with this radiation,” said Felix Kniazev, an artist from Dorchester and a member of the group. “Utilities are forcing you to accept this.”

National Grid said the new meters are proven safe and secure. The frequencies emitted by the devices are lower than cellphones and other common devices, said Deborah Drew, a National Grid spokeswoman.

The company’s pilot program, projected to cost about $44 million, has installed about 7,500 meters in Worcester. The data that National Grid receives very 15 minutes will help the utility improve reliability, Drew said, allowing it to quickly pinpoint and respond to power outages and other problems.

But skeptics worry that increasing reliance on computer technology could make the power grid more vulnerable to cyber attacks, which could shut down whole cities. Last week, US Representatives Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat running for the Senate, and Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, released a report calling for legislation to enhance the security of the power system.

Opponents say smart meters might be able to gather information on personal activities.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Opponents say smart meters might be able to gather information on personal activities.

Smart meters also gather data on household energy use. If stolen or hacked, they could reveal personal information, such as when a consumer wakes up, goes to bed, or runs a device like a washing machine, said Ernie Hayden, managing principal of energy security at Verizon Global Energy and Utility Practice.

“In the old days [meters] didn’t tell me anything about what you were using the electricity for, why you were using it, when you were using it,” he said. “If I had a million peoples’ worth of data, there’s value in that because now I could sell it.”

Drew said National Grid has safeguarded customers’ personal information for years, and will continue to do so. Customers can opt out of smart meters by contacting customer service, she said.

NStar and Unitil Corp. both completed pilot programs with little controversy. In 2010, NStar said it retrofitted meters with radio wave and broadband technologies in 2,800 homes and businesses in Newton, Hopkinton, and Jamaica Plain

Unitil , based in New Hampshire, said its meters used cables, instead of wireless technology, to gather advanced energy data from 100 customers in Fitchburg, Lunenburg, Townsend, and Ashby, as well as 200 other customers in New Hampshire in 2011.

Alyssa Edes can be reached at alyssa.edes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alyssaedes.
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