MONTPELIER - Worries about health effects, privacy, and cost are fueling growing opposition to wireless, digital "smart meters'' that utilities around the country are installing at homes and businesses and touting as key energy conservation and grid reliability tools.
Vermont appears poised to take an unusually aggressive stance. While several states have allowed utilities to charge a fee to customers who want to opt out of smart meters, Vermont's governor is expected soon to sign legislation that would allow customers to say no without paying anything extra, at least until more studies are completed on the real costs of not deploying the meters.
"They're the ones who came up with this,'' Senator Robert Hartwell, a Democrat from Bennington and a leading supporter of the free opt-out, said in an interview. "The utilities didn't really care what the ratepayers thought. So since they're the ones who are trying to impose the new system, we think they're the ones who should absorb the costs.''
Dorothy Schnure, spokeswoman for Vermont's Green Mountain Power Corp., said a smart grid will enable utilities to operate in a more efficient and environmentally friendly manner. She predicted that most customers would be eager to see the change.
Under Vermont's law, the costs of customers opting out - mainly having to send a meter reader to their home or business, will be spread across all customers, rather than being paid just by those who opt out.
Other states allow opt-outs, including California, Maine, Nevada, and Oregon. But Schnure and others who watch the industry closely said they were not aware of any where consumers can skip smart meters for free. California imposes a $75 fee up front plus $10 a month for opting out.
Maine Supreme Court justices heard arguments on Thursday on whether that state should allow a free opt-out. Justices questioned a lawyer for the state Public Utilities Commission on why the agency hadn't done more to investigate the safety of smart meters before allowing them to be deployed.
Vermont joined the smart meter movement in 2008, when state officials and utility executives announced plans to deploy the devices. They said the system would allow power prices to vary at different times of the day in keeping with demand, with a resulting incentive for consumers to run power-hungry appliances like dishwashers and clothes dryers at night when demand is low.
Another benefit cited by supporters of the technology: Because the meters would allow two-way radio communication, the utility would be able to see immediately when even a single customer lost power. Fewer people would return from vacation to find a warm freezer full of spoiled food.
Smart meters got a big boost in 2009, when the Obama administration devoted $3.5 billion of its $787 billion economic stimulus package to grants to help utilities install the new technology. Vermont utilities got $69 million of that money.
Now, consumers and some government officials across the country are starting to question the push for smart meters on multiple fronts.
One concern is over the long-term health effects of being exposed to the radio-frequency radiation emitted by the meters. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, last year called radio-frequency radiation, which is emitted by cell phones, smart meters and many other devices, as a "possible carcinogen.''
Smart meter supporters say the levels of RFRs emitted by the devices are much lower than those emitted by cell phones, and that governmental agencies have built big safety margins into emissions limits for both.