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Those who want wireless “smart” meters to measure household energy consumption will one day have one now that Eugene Water & Electric Board commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve a voluntary “smart” meter program.

Despite the urging of a rowdy crowd at EWEB’s riverfront headquarters, commissioners approved the “opt-in” program where customers can choose whether or not they want a smart meter.

General Manager Roger Gray acknowledged that such a go-slow approach might not result in as much savings as the utility had hoped when it initially proposed installing smart meters for most of its 142,000-plus customers by 2017.

“If we lose a little efficiency to provide customers a choice, I think that’s a good thing, personally,” Gray told commissioners and a crowd of more than 100 people.

Even if only a few thousand people request a smart meter, the utility still estimates it will save at least $9 million, with the bulk of the savings coming from eliminating meter reading, Gray said.

Most of the more than 30 people who spoke to commissioners for 90 minutes urged them to postpone any smart meter installation for 10 years. Only two people spoke in favor of smart meters.

The voluntary option doesn’t appease many of those who are against the meters, who say that the radio frequency emitted from neighboring meters would still put customers at risk of negative health effects.

Commissioner Dick Helgeson said a 10-year moratorium on smart meters isn’t practical. “It’s something we’re going to have to do in the next five years or so anyway,” he said.

Several commissioners cited an EWEB survey that found that 45 percent of customers surveyed favored smart meters, 40 percent were against and the rest were unsure.

Under the opt-in plan, EWEB customers who want a smart meter would have to call EWEB to get one installed. Those who don’t ask for one won’t get one, EWEB spokesman Joe Harwood explained prior to Tuesday’s meeting. But customers won’t be able to request a smart meter anytime soon.

“We could take five or 10 years to roll out meters to 50 percent of our customers,” Harwood said. The utility likely won’t start installing wireless meters until “several years out,” he said.

Under the option approved by commissioners, no customers — neither those who opt in, nor those who stayed out — would face any fees for their choice, EWEB says.

The cost of the smart meter project will be lower than the initial $24 million to $26 million cost projection because the utility will now not need to replace thousands of electric and water meters in a short timeframe, Harwood said. Staff has not yet nailed down how much the project would cost, he said.

The wireless meters have been a continuing controversy for the utility, with strong opposition from several dozen vocal community members — many of them aligned with the group Families for Safe Meters — who regularly testify at the utility’s board meetings against the devices.

Those opposed to the meters have said they are concerned with health and privacy risks associated with the technology, citing studies that have found that exposure to radio frequency can cause fatigue, dizziness, nausea, headaches, insomnia and a greater likelihood of cancer.

Gray said before Tuesday’s meeting that the utility’s decision to give commissioners a go-slow approach to smart meters was not influenced by strong opposition from Families for Safe Meters.

“That was not a factor at all,” Gray said, adding that the utility has “always had the opt-out philosophy,” where customers could choose whether they wanted a smart meter but might still have had to pay for monthly meter reading costs.

Instead, Gray said the utility decided to focus on the “strategic benefits” it would reap using smart meters rather than focus on immediate financial savings. Such benefits include boosting energy efficiency and helping the utility develop an emergency water source plan at a cheaper cost to EWEB and its customers, he said.

Instead of paying $150 million to develop a water intake plant similar to the existing one near Hayden Bridge, EWEB could spend about $12 million to build a small treatment plant on the Willamette River and use smart meters to curtail water consumption during an emergency, Gray said.

If customers used too much water during an emergency, the utility could activate a water tariff and would fine customers for every gallon used, using the smart meter to measure water consumption.

The opt-in option would also give the utility more leeway to test certain meters and set up pilot programs with customers in the next few years, instead of building up for a full rollout, or “big bang,” as Gray called it.

“We’ll have the ability to test the program and get it right,” Gray said. 
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