FOUNTAIN, COLO. -- A ballot issue in Fountain is attempting to ban a newly installed utility measuring system. "Smart meters" have already been installed at 75% of Fountain Utility customers' homes, which the company estimates to be about 16,000 residences.
The measure was put on the ballot by way of a citizen-sponsored petition. Enough signatures means voters will decide on the allowance or ban of smart meter technology in November.
The upgraded meters were approved in 2009 and installation began in November 2012.
But to date, 14 states have either banned smart meters, have pending legislation against them, or have offered customers the opportunity to opt out. Some for health concerns, others over privacy issues: California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Vermont.
More and more customers across the U.S. are opposing the meters, arguing that the radio frequencies they emit cause health risks. Opponents are quoting the World Health Organization's classification of radio-frequencies as a "possible carcinogen," saying they emit more than 100 times that of cell phones.
According to utilities, an approval of the ban would cost the city more than $5.4 million, and would almost certainly mean a hike in rates.
It would mean $3.3 million to replace the meters with an older model, and the city would need to return the $2.13 million dollars from a U.S. Department of Energy grant.
Petition circulator and main critic of Fountain's smart meters, Darrell Couch said many of the cities implementing smart metering systems haven't done their research on the potential effects.
"There are people that want to pay into the technology and ride it while it's high, and it'll probably take a while for legislation to catch up," he explained.
Couch, a systems integrator who's developed software and circuit design for government agencies, said he's done the research and health is a serious concern. He's given city council and utilities more than 100 reports and documents to prove his point.
"Everything I've given the city is documented fact by a government agency," he said.
Doctors and health organizations have been evaluating the possibility of customer's discovery of a sensitivity to the frequencies. It's called Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Disorder also known as EHS.
Headaches, nose bleeds, muscle cramps, cognitive dysfunction, fatigue, skin irritation and irregular sleep patterns are just some of the symptoms sufferers describe when they are exposed to electromagnetic fields, but these have not been proven to be directly correlated.
Critics argue the radio frequencies will be continuously going through their homes. They say it could interfere with medical devices like pacemakers, by throwing off their signal. Many makers of pacemaker warn that radio frequencies can affect the device's effectiveness. They argue that even having it next door could be enough of an impact, therein supporting the city-wide ban.
Fountain Utilities Director Curtis Mitchell said these are serious concerns. But, he said the smart meters emit less frequencies than the current meters.
"This technology replaces an automated reading system that Fountain Utilities put in place 13 years ago. It replaces a meter that has a radio in it, with an electric meter that has a radio in it, just with more capabilities," Mitchell explained. He said the digital readers that have been used in Fountain for more than a decade send data back via radio frequencies every 3 seconds. The smart meters send data once every 24 hours.
Couch said the previous meters used for the last decade don't communicate often enough or strong enough to require an FCC label. The smart meters do. He said that it's a national issue. He cites cell phone towers triggering brain cancers as well, adding that prolonged exposure to the smart meters could result in the same discovery, we just haven't been exposed long enough yet.
"In the U.S. we have a higher level threshold acceptability from the FCC for these types of frequencies than anywhere else in the world. Third world countries like India are about a tenth of us because they realize there's a problem, and we're increased ours since that time," he said.
Other supporters of the ban argue the privacy standpoint that it could be known hour by hour when they're using power, and that the company or government could use that information to adjust rates or charge more at peak times.
"Call it load shedding but it's essentially what it does is if utilities is in a peak time, they can actually use the meter to turn off your air conditioner or hot water heater or your dryer until a less critical time," Couch explained, citing government agency research.
They've also argued that hackers may have the ability to obtain their personal information from the meter's stored or transmitted data. A bigger concern, the ability to recognize when you're home by when your usage spikes. Critics don't want utilities or hackers to be able to share that data.
"The National Institute of Standards and Technology said by looking at the information they can tell what kind of appliance you're running just by the signature that it puts on the line through your meter. even if you don't have a smart appliance."
Mitchell said they've heard those concerns and sent the meters to a medical company who tests pacemakers and other devices. He said they were unable to hack the data because of its encryption, and that personal data isn't stored in the meters themselves, but at the company's data center protected by numerous firewalls.
He said the meters aren't designed to monitor usage for monetary benefit, but instead to lower operating costs by reducing the amount of service calls since the meters can be monitored and controlled from their hub. He says users will be able to see their energy use real-time so they can adjust accordingly to save energy, or to study sudden increases to target a faulty appliance.
Couch argues the Department of Energy grant that financially supported much of this project proves that to be untrue.
"When they wrote the grant, data mining is required so if you know data mining, they're tying to understand anything they can through your meter about your lifestyle," he said.
Mitchell said the monitoring and access to turn off power will keep first responders safe.
The Fire Department weighed in on the decision as well. They are concerned over the potential loss of the ability to remotely shut off utilities from the main system, a necessary step before fighting a structure fire.
"We have people responding to those fires and we have instances where firefighters come in contact with live electrical wire, so certainly we look at public safety to see what we can do to help our first responders, Mitchell said.