By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter

BARABOO — Residents in this small southern Wisconsin city have two choices when it comes to the brave new world of the Smart Grid:  Go along with new “smart” meters for public utilities or get along without water, gas or electricity.

Most residents don’t make a fuss and let the utilities install the new smart meters, which are supposed to provide utility customers and taxpayers with savings from real-time data usage and less manpower needed to read traditional analog meters.

Some residents, however, including 81-year-old Audrey Parker, say the smart meters are an invasion of privacy, and they believe the technology’s use of radio frequency poses health concerns.

Parker and the Sheriffs, a Baraboo family, fought city hall over installation of the new meters and have seemingly lost.

“My husband is 74 years old and he’s been hauling five gallon buckets of water into the house for us to flush the toilet,” said Darcy Sheriff, 65. “It’s not even sanitary. It’s just a disgusting situation.”

The Sheriffs recently took in a family with a 2-year-old girl to stay with them until August, adding to the sticky situation.

“We’re not political crusader-type people. We just know it’s time to take a stand. This has gone too far. We don’t want this thing in our home,” Sheriff told Wisconsin Reporter on Wednesday. “It’s none of the city’s business when I’m using water or what I’m using. Just that we don’t know for sure (about health issues) is enough to bother us.”

Mayor Mike Palm did not return requests for comment, but city officials told Wisconsin Reporter on Wednesday that the city tried to convince the holdouts to let them in to install the new meter.

“With 4,612 customers, there’s fewer than a handful left to do,” said Tom Pinion, director of Public Works for the city. “Every residence in Baraboo that has electric meters and gas meters has this exact same device in their home. Every home has two transceiver units. This is a third.”

The smart meter uses radio-frequency waves to send usage data between a utility customer’s home and their utility company. The high-tech gauges are a key link in the transition to the Smart Grid, the shared initiative of the federal government and the energy industry to modernize the nation’s electricity transmission and distribution system. There’s a lot of taxpayer money involved in a myriad programs to bring the Smart Grid and smart meters online.

Small pockets of citizens in municipalities throughout the country have balked at the new technology. Some cite health concerns, others see the meters as an invasion of privacy and still others link the technology to United Nations Agenda 21, a conspiracy theory based on an actual UN policy initiative that purports the global elite want to control, among other things, how much energy people use.

Pinion said he hasn’t seen any evidence that backs up the health and privacy concerns cited by Parker. Regardless, he said, she has to comply with city policies to receive city resources.

“It’s not an option,” he said. “The service she’s had the last umpteen years has been water. She can certainly continue to have water, but we have an obligation to change up the meter.”

The Public Service Commission has allowed municipalities and private utilities to decide whether they want to offer an opt-out provision. Some communities, like the city of Madison, allow an opt-out, although it doesn’t come without a cost.

Madison Water Utility customers who decline the installation of a smart meter have to pay a monthly charge of $7.78 for a quarterly manual meter reading, according to the utility.

Baraboo, like other Wisconsin communities, doesn’t offer an opt-out option.

Pinion said 17 other Wisconsin communities use the same transceiver model and don’t allow an opt-out option.

“We’re not breaking any new ground here,” he said.

State Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, however, wants to give customers statewide the option to opt-out of smart meter installation.

“Smart meters are seeking efficiencies, and that’s a noble thing, but what’s been happening with smart meters is utility providers by and large don’t have competition,” he said. “So when these smart meters are installed, customers are not being given options. This would allow an opt-out for customers who, for whatever reason, don’t want smart meters.”

Thiesfeldt said he’s fielded just a handful of formal complaints from constituents, but has heard concern from other people at public events.

“Privacy concerns are the thrust of the bill that I have put forward,” the lawmaker said. “I think this is a Fourth Amendment issue. People should be able to control their personal data.”

Thiesfeldt pointed to “government snooping” revelations from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden as a reason why personal data collection should be protected.

“The public utility is able to measure an unbelievable amount of data in your household, getting down to whether or not you’re using a microwave or a stove,” he said. “I want the public to know what these devices are capable of doing. You ought to be able to control your personal data of what’s going on inside your home.”

The PSC intervened Wednesday, and by late in the day the Sheriffs’ water was turned back on, pending an investigation. Darcy Sheriff suffers from a medical condition that exempts the home from the shut-off. Darcy Sheriff told Wisconsin Reporter that the city is demanding a medical form proving her infirmity within 21 days or the utility will shut off the water again.

Audrey Parker was not so lucky. As of late Wednesday, the 81-year-old great-grandmother was still without city water.
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