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Hearing on Smart Meters Draws Impassioned Testimony

A Texas Senate committee heard sometimes emotional testimony Tuesday about smart-meter installations, as opponents of the installation argued that their rights had been violated and the meters carried health risks.

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A Texas Senate committee heard sometimes emotional testimony Tuesday about smart electric meter installations, as opponents of the installations argued that their rights had been violated.

“Every consumer should be given a choice and not an ultimatum,” Dallas resident Pam Colquitt told the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. She said she denied representatives of Oncor, the local utility company, the right to access her property, but they installed them a few weeks later anyway. Colquitt said she was “deeply concerned about the health hazards” associated with the meters.

As instructed by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the committee was looking into the health effects of the meters, which have drawn concern from increasingly vocal opponents, including some members of the Tea Party.

Most Texas homes have smart meters, the result of a requirement by the Public Utility Commission, which oversees the electric power market in Texas. The PUC was acting at the directive of the Legislature, which in 2005 instructed the commission to “encourage” the use of advanced technology like smart meters.

Roughly 5.7 million smart electric meters have already been installed around the state (not counting municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives). They are funded with a surcharge on ratepayers’ bills ranging from $2 to $3.50 per month. The meters can be remotely read and measure the electrical flow in 15-minute increments, allowing homeowners to closely monitor their energy use. Cost savings, including elimination of the need for meter readers, justify the change from analog meters to digital ones, utilities argue.

The industry says that the smart meters are safe and meet federal radio-frequency requirements. Edward Gelmann, an oncologist at Columbia University Medical Center who was paid by Oncor to testify, told the committee that the meters “really do not have the ability to interact with people or with animals to cause adverse health effects.” The exposure to radio-frequency effects is lower from a smart meter than from a baby monitor, he said.

Brian Lloyd, the PUC's executive director, noted that health concerns had not come up during the commission’s original discussions about the meters years ago. However, he said, the commission is studying whether new rules or even an opt-out clause is needed, and the three commissioners who head the PUC are likely to weigh in on this toward the end of the year.

But allowing some homes to keep the old system could complicate efforts to make the Texas power market more efficient, Lloyd cautioned.

Opponents say that the cumulative radio-transmission effect of devices like cellphones, baby monitors and other household devices can cause harm. Unlike those other devices, smart meters are mandatory for most Texans, and opponents urged lawmakers to enact a moratorium on installations or an opt-out clause.

During public testimony, several smart-meter opponents told their stories of trying — usually without success — to prevent the utility companies from installing the meters. In one case, related during public testimony by radio host Wayne Richards, a woman fetched a gun and the installer fled.

State Sen. John Carona, the committee chairman, emphasized that pulling a gun on a meter installer was a terrible idea.

“Please don’t attempt to invoke the Castle Doctrine,” he said to everyone watching the hearing, referring to Texas' stand-your-ground law.

Joshua Houston, the general counsel for Texas Impact, a religious advocacy group and the Interfaith Center for Public Policy, testified in support of the smart meters, noting that the monitoring capabilities they provide help save energy and keep the grid stable. “If we have rolling outages, then the medically vulnerable are at risk,” he said.

Bobby Reed, an Oncor worker and union representative, testified that another problem he had seen was that there was an uptick in cases of the base of the meter burning up after the smart meter was installed; one issue, he said, was that the new meters are a bit bigger than the old ones.

“These things are causing damage to people’s homes,” Reed told the committee, adding that homeowners were held responsible for repairs. Carona said he would look into it.

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