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A bill that would allow Wisconsin utility customers to decline or “opt-out” from using new high-tech smart meters is failing to gain traction as another bill that would weaken liability laws for those same utilities is gaining momentum in the state legislature.

In mid-July, Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R- Fond du Lac, began seeking endorsements for a bill that would create a statewide opt-out program for utility customers of all kinds – water, electric or gas – who wish to keep their analog meters.

Thiesfeldt said that while some utility customers believe there are health risks associated with the so-called smart meters, which use radio frequency waves to transit information in a similar manner to a cellphone or Wi-Fi computer network, his bill was introduced to address privacy concerns.

Thiesfeldt pointed out that the smart meters will eventually be used for purposes other than collecting utility data. When the meters are installed and used with the latest, computerized appliances, they can track if a home is occupied, if the home security system is activated and when a consumer goes to bed at night.

While other Assembly Republicans have endorsed the measure, the only Senate sponsors are Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, and Sen. Glenn Grothman, R- West Bend.

No Democrats have signed on in support of the bill.

Thiesfeldt said he spoke with Sen. Paul Farrow, R-Pewaukee, last week about co-sponsoring the bill but was told by Farrow he was “examining it and exploring additional possibilities.”

Thiesfeldt said Farrow also told him he was seeking the opinion of others to see if there were any “positive additions” to be made to the opt-out bill.

Farrow chairs the Senate Government Operations, Public Works and Telecommunications Committee. This position makes him a powerful ally in an attempt to move the opt-out bill forward as it would likely need to be approved by his committee.

Farrow did not return a call for comment Monday.

Thiesfeldt said lawmakers have until Thursday to sign on in support of his bill and acknowledged he is lacking industry support. He finds it “curious” that none of the utility companies have approached him about his bill.

“It is an uphill battle anytime you take on power utility companies,” Thiesfeldt said. “My bill speaks for the common person who is involuntarily having a device placed in their house and they don’t have any other option.”

While Farrow hasn't committed yet to the opt-out bill, he is a co-sponsor of Assembly Bill 257. That bill would amend current law to provide an exemption from civil liability to an electric service provider for damage to an animal, an individual or property caused by the transmission, distribution or sale of electric energy by that provider.

“If you read between the lines it (AB 257) is looking at the health concerns associated with electric companies, things like stray voltage,” Thiesfeldt said. “But I don’t think there is any direct competition between the two (bills).”

Utility companies, including the Cooperative Network Association, Dairyland Power Cooperative, Wisconsin Energy Corp., Wisconsin Public Service Corp. and Wisconsin Utilities Association, are also on board and have registered in favor of the bill. Alliant Energy registered as neutral.

Charyl Zehfus, a town of Sheboygan resident who has closely followed the smart-meter debate, expressed concern that Thiesfeldt’s bill that gives consumers more power didn’t appear to be gaining any traction while a bill that weakened utility liability laws was moving forward.

Zehfus was granted an opt-out from the town of Sheboygan water utility, but Alliant and Wisconsin Public Service have denied her similar requests.

Zehfus doesn’t want a smart meter because she, like a growing number of people, believes the meters lead to health problems.

A member of Wisconsin Smart Meter Action Group, Zehfus and other members are encouraging people to fill out the “Stop Smart Meters Wisconsin” form and send it to their representatives to advance Thiesfeldt’s bill.

She fears AB 257 will give electric companies a pass on any health-related claims brought forward by customers in the future.

“I think the opt-out bill is stalling because the utility lobby is probably right on top of it, there is a lack of constituent awareness and if people have heard about it (smart meters) they don’t understand the technology or they don’t care,” Zehfus said. “But this bill is about the freedom of choice. People should support that right even if they don’t have a problem with the meters themselves.”

The Madison Water Utility has an opt-out program for its customers. While the utility was putting its program parameters in place, roughly 30 residents petitioned the Public Service Commission to enact a state-wide opt-out, but that effort was unsuccessful.
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