Power struggle: Customers vs. NV Energy smart meters - FOX5 Vegas - KVVU

Power struggle: Customers vs. NV Energy smart meters

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Smart meter controversy has led to protests at utility meetings Smart meter controversy has led to protests at utility meetings
NV Energy customers have tested their own meters using RF analyzers NV Energy customers have tested their own meters using RF analyzers
Testing smart meters and the surrounding area for radio frequency radiation Testing smart meters and the surrounding area for radio frequency radiation
One Las Vegas resident received a $12,498.54 bill after his meter was installed One Las Vegas resident received a $12,498.54 bill after his meter was installed

Ninety-five percent of homes in southern Nevada now have a new way of measuring electrical usage in the form of a 'smart meter.' Still, the technology is generating controversy… everything from health concerns, to damage, and reports of sky-high bills.

As of January 2012, the new electrical meters have been installed on 712,000 homes in our region. NV Energy claims the devices are designed to help you. Yet, there are some who don't want anything to do with a smart meter, and others who wish they never got one.

"They're lying to you... it's lies!" Las Vegas resident Chris Cave yelled out during a recent Public Utilities Commission workshop.

The hearings before Nevada's utility regulators have become a tinder box. A handful of complaints has turned into full-scale protests.

"I will not leave them to choose my lifestyle and to negatively affect my family," Cave told FOX5.

The bitterness lies in a number of issues.

"Our right to privacy is being completely demolished," said Sheila Sterling, who has spent much of her own time looking into the meters… how they work, and how they send information back to NV Energy.

Here's what happens: Instead of a meter reader coming to your home every month, the smart meter sends the data through a radio signal. It goes so far as to calculate how much power you're using every 15 minutes.

That's where Sterling found cause for concern.

"They can tell when your refrigerator comes on and for how long... your kettle, your toaster, your washing machine," she said while presenting photographs and documentation of her claims. "They know what you're doing in your home, who is in your home, they know when you're there and when you're not."

Gary Smith, NV Energy project director of smart technologies, flatly denies that complaint.

"That is private data on a secure system back to our utility," said Smith. "We're governed by law to keep that information private."

The company contends that no identifiable information is linked to the readings, which are sent, by their count, 48 times per day - or once every half hour.

That is where the issue of health and safety comes into play.

"They're claiming they're safe, and I said no," resident Angel DeFazio protested.

DeFazio has been on a crusade to stop the installation of smart meters, and has successfully postponed installment in her entire complex. She cites concerns over the radio frequency radiation emitted by the meters.

"(NV Energy) said ‘you have no choice'. I said watch me. I'll make sure everybody knows," DeFazio told FOX5.

Several residents have gone so far as to test the meters themselves using RF analyzers.

"We've had engineers… we've had all sorts of professionals monitoring them," said Sterling.

She provided photographs of measurements showing a smart meter spiking 5-6 times per minute.

That prompted us to conduct our own test of the smart meter using a professional-grade exposure probe manufactured by Narda Safety Test Solutions.

We analyzed a smart meter for one hour, and during that time the probe picked up spikes between zero and six percent of FCC limits for human exposure. We also had a certified professional broadcast engineer with 40+ years of experience, monitoring our test.

Read More: FCC Limits for Human Exposure (Bulletin OET 65)

As a comparison, we tested a two-way radio in transmission mode, which emitted a signal that is roughly 25 percent of exposure limits. Yet, the farther you move away from the device, the more exposure drops.

"In front of the meter at one foot, it's 15,000 times less than the FCC exposure limits," said Gary Smith. "So, we feel our system is very safe for our customers."

Read More: Independent research of smart meter safety

But some of those customers are not buying that argument, and argue that any radiation is too much.

"Long-term exposure to them… you just don't know what that's going to bring," said Las Vegas resident Penny Hess.

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine agreed in a recent letter to the California Public Utilities Commission, saying "chronic exposure to wireless radio frequency radiation is a preventable environmental hazard that is sufficiently well documented to warrant immediate preventative public health action."

While the safety is under intense debate, one thing no one wants is a higher bill. Dan Stegemann had a smart meter installed on his house late last year.

"The next bill I get is this... $12,498.54," Stegemann said.

He couldn't believe his eyes. The normal bill for his two-story home is roughly $180. The error was made when his analog meter was removed and misread.

Fortunately, Dan had proof.

He asked: "What about all the other people who didn't have the luck or the presence of mind to go out and take a picture of their meter when it was pulled off? How many people are you overcharging and there's no proof?"

NV Energy told FOX5 that it welcomes customer concerns regarding higher bills, but often the claims are attributed to changing weather conditions or human error. Smith also said the meters are calibrated and checked before installation.

Another concern is if NV Energy will charge customers different rates based on consumption. The answer is yes, but only if the customer willingly enters the program. NV Energy told FOX5 there are no current plans to make that program mandatory for every home.

Read More: NV Energy list of myths and facts about smart meters

According to an investigation by the Nevada Public Utilities Commission, as of Oct. 31, 2011, there have been 2,284 requests to postpone installment. Add to that 281 claims for property damage or repair once the meter was installed.

Read More: PUCN investigation

"NV Energy is basically visiting every home in the state of Nevada. When we operate the main breaker and turn off the power and turn it back on, sometimes older equipment will fail," Smith contends.

The utility blames much of the spreading concern on customers getting misinformation from the Internet. One solution under consideration is an opt-out program.

There are currently four options being discussed at the moment, including a non-transmitting digital meter that would have to be read manually each month. But, those who wish to opt out may have to pay a proposed fee of $110 up-front, followed by $14.86 every month.

"It's basically an hourly rate," DeFazio argued. "So, how could one meter reader, what? Read one meter an hour?"

"People aren't being told, they're being bullied," Sterling said.

And that is partially true. NV Energy has approval from the PUC to install smart meters on every single home, regardless of concerns.

When asked if the PUC could order every home to install a meter, Smith said, "They could. You've seen that in some jurisdictions, like Texas as an example."

And for now, it's an electrified debate that's still giving off sparks.

Cave says, "I'd sell my house and move out of this town before I let them put one of those devices on there!"

The Public Utilities Commission is expected to make a ruling on the opt-out program later this month.

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