BENNINGTON -- Legislation authored by Bennington County Sen. Robert Hartwell that prevents electrical utilities from charging an "opt out" fee for customers who do not want smart meters has cleared the Legislature.
Hartwell, a Democrat, sought protections for customers who do not wish to have a smart meter installed on their homes. The meters, which can be wired or wireless, have drawn some critics who believe the radiation emitted by the wireless meters pose a health risk.
Proponents, meanwhile, say the meters will communicate directly with utilities and track and bill for electrical usage without requiring meter readers. Smart meters can also better pinpoint exact locations of power outages. Proponents also argue that such technology will allow consumers to better track electrical usage and save money.
According to the Vermont Department of Health, smart meters use radio signals to communicate electricity demand through mobile telecommunications. The signals that are used -- radio frequency radiation, or RFR -- are the same used for radio and TV broadcasting.
Microwave ovens, radar and Wi-Fi devices also emit RFR, but mobile phones are the most common source of exposure to RFR.
William Irwin, radiological health chief for the Vermont Department of Health, said smart meters emit RFR, but the levels are largely immeasurable when more than three feet from the device. However, he said more study is warranted to verify information already gathered.
Central Vermont Public Service, which is in the process of rolling out about 160,000 smart meters to customers in its territory, had been planning to charge a $10 fee for those that choose to opt out of having a smart meter.
The legislation, however, states that customers may "choose not to have a wireless smart meter installed, at no additional monthly or other charge." Additionally, the law says customers can ask for the removal of a previously installed wireless smart meter for any reason without incurring a charge for the removal.
Steve Costello, a spokesman for the CVPS, said the utility continues to believe that smart meters will benefit ratepayers. He said the legislation sets a new precedent in dealing with utilities.
"Vermont has always required cost-causers to pay the cost of their decisions rather than spread them to other customers; this is a departure from that long-standing state policy, but it's the Legislature's call. We remain hopeful that most customers will embrace the smart grid and all that it offers: a chance for folks to lower their individual bills through better energy management; reduced reliance on dirty power generators by reducing our peak loads; improved air quality; decreased global warming impacts; and improved outage response and grid management. Virtually every major environmental and health organization that has weighed in on the smart grid supports it, and we believe Vermonters will see the value in it as well," Costello wrote in an e-mail.
The legislation also requires utilities to provide prior written notice to customers indicating that the smart meter will use radio or other wireless means for two-way communication between the meter and the company, and informing customers of their rights under the new law.
Costello said CVPS has already established a notification system for its ratepayers, and will adjust its policies to meet any requirements in the legislation.
"We're happy to do it. We believe the vast majority of customers will welcome the new meters, and we already have a two-mailing system in place so every customer is notified twice before we install their new meter. We feel very strongly that customer engagement is important so that customers are aware of the program, its benefits and the reasons behind it. And we're also happy to re-contact customers who already have their new meters," he wrote. "Again, we firmly believe that most Vermonters will see the environmental and economic value of the new system, so we have no qualms about the notification requirements."
The legislation also calls for studies related to smart meters to be submitted to lawmakers. The Department of Public Service must report to the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2014, on the cost-savings associated with smart meters, and whether any security breaches occurred because of the wireless technology. Meanwhile, the commissioners of the Departments of Health and Public Service must submit an updated report by Jan. 15, 2013, on the health effects of smart meters.