Government

Alliant's energy meters getting smart

But handful of local customers worry of health risk

Alliant Energy electrical metering manager Sean Maxwell demonstrates Tuesday how a frequency analyzer — an untested and uncalibrated piece of equipment not used by Alliant workers and ordered only to show — can easily make it appear through its ominous warnings that electrical equipment is somehow dangerous. The device commonly is used in videos posted online that warn of the dangers of smart meters and other sources of radio frequency. Alliant is seeking to educate customers on the safety of its new meters, including their low radio frequency output. Alliant is in the process of deploying the smart meters in its Iowa markets, including ongoing installation in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Alliant Energy electrical metering manager Sean Maxwell demonstrates Tuesday how a frequency analyzer — an untested and uncalibrated piece of equipment not used by Alliant workers and ordered only to show — can easily make it appear through its ominous warnings that electrical equipment is somehow dangerous. The device commonly is used in videos posted online that warn of the dangers of smart meters and other sources of radio frequency. Alliant is seeking to educate customers on the safety of its new meters, including their low radio frequency output. Alliant is in the process of deploying the smart meters in its Iowa markets, including ongoing installation in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Last year, officials with Alliant Energy began a three-year transition from analog meters to smart meters for the utility’s roughly 750,000 customers in Iowa.

Alliant officials say the smart meters represent a major upgrade to the system, can detect power outages faster and help provide better service. But some Cedar Rapidians have raised concerns — arguing the new meters came with little consent from customers or even present potential health risks.

While the large majority of customers have welcomed the upgrade to smart meters, Alliant spokesman Justin Foss said, there are some who aren’t thrilled about new technology installed outside their homes.

Foss said oftentimes adding clarity or dispelling misinformation is enough to satisfy customer concerns.

“We do have a lot of customers that are excited for it, but we do also have a lot of customers that are asking more questions,” Foss said. “We had a lot of customers who, the minute they found out, said they wanted to opt out. And then we’ve talked with them on the phone and explained a little bit and they said, ‘Oh, that’s not what my neighbor told me. I don’t want to opt out, sign me up.’”

Some customers, like Christine Rogers, who has lived in Cedar Rapids for more than 40 years, remain unconvinced.

Rogers, who has had a smart meter on her home since Alliant installed one in December, said she is worried about potential health risks associated with the new meters, which have been reported on some websites and documentaries.

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“My concerns are for every human being. As this life becomes more and more convenient, easy, when do we wake up and see that our health, our safety, our privacy, they are all at risk. It’s time to make a stand. We were given rights, choices, and Alliant is dictating our choice in the matter of these smart meters,” Rogers said in an email.

DO SMART METERS ACTUALLY POSE RISKS?

Alliant has been operating smart meters for its approximately 470,000 Wisconsin customers for 10 years.

Meanwhile, many Iowans have been using analog or digital meters to monitor the gas or electricity consumption on their homes for as long as many can remember. Such meters must be read manually every month.

Smart meters record and share daily power use between the user and electricity supplier over a wireless radio signal.

Alliant’s meters send a radio frequency six times a day for .15 seconds — or less than one collective second per day — back to Alliant to provide near real-time readings on energy usage.

Daily meter readings — which measure only the amount of energy used — eliminate estimated energy bills.

“There’s a lot of customers out there who want more granular data on their energy usage so they can use that energy more wisely. That may set up for a future of different rates for us, different time-of-use rates,” said Sean Maxwell, Alliant electric metering manager.

The signal also allows for direct monitoring for safety concerns or power outages. Customers with analog meters must call Alliant directly to report an outage.

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The RF transmission from a smart meter is similar to that of a cellphone, cordless phone, baby monitor or Wi-Fi router. In addition, the meters, which transmit from outside the house, are compliant with regulatory organizations Underwriters Laboratories and the Federal Communications Commission.

But for some residents, like Rogers, that frequency poses a potential threat.

“I understand technology is moving fast and some technology is great. However, these smart meters pose known negative risks for the human race (which also effects our earth, animals, plant, insects) in the forms of health, safety, and privacy that I believe is seriously worth looking into before subjecting innocent people, earth, and creatures to it,” she said in the email.

According to the American Cancer Society, smart meters give off non-ionizing low-energy radiation, which “has enough energy to move atoms in a molecule around or cause them to vibrate, which can lead to heat but it can’t damage DNA directly.”

The society notes that while RF radiation is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” it isn’t clear what risk, if any, smart meters pose.

“It would be nearly impossible to conduct a study to prove or disprove a link between living in a house with smart meters and cancer because people have so many sources of exposure to RF and the level of exposure from this source is so small,” the society notes.

REGULATORS TO CONSIDER OPT-OUT

Alliant’s Foss said officials with the utility began sending out notifications several weeks in advance of the installation of smart meters.

Residents with concerns are asked to reach out, he added.

“If they have questions, we want to have that dialogue,” he said.

For those who adamantly oppose a smart meter, Foss said Alliant is working on a proposal to the Iowa Utilities Board that would seek to allow for an opt-out.

“It’s not up to us, but we’re proposing it,” he said.

In Wisconsin, where Alliant installed smart meters 10 years ago, the state did not allow customers to opt out.

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If the Iowa Utilities Board allows an opt-out policy, Foss said it should be noted that while the transition for some is just now taking place, smart meters are the industry standard.

“What we know is this: That if customers choose to opt-out, now all of a sudden they’re going non-standard and that increases costs,” he said.

A brochure provided to Alliant customers notes that sticking with an analog meter could cost an additional $15 to $25 a month.

Wendy Hartman, who has lived in the same Cedar Rapids house for about 20 years, said she has been frustrated with what she calls a lack of communications from Alliant on the meters.

Hartman, who has sent her complaint to the Iowa Utilities Board, said she didn’t hear about the added cost associated with keeping an old meter until after she requested to opt out.

“I just think it’s mean-spirited and I think people are not being well-informed,” Hartman said. “Even the options that they give you are so one-sided. They really are unworkable and very restrictive.”

Don Tormey, Iowa Utilities Board communications manager, said the board has received correspondence from about a dozen customers about Alliant’s smart meters in Cedar Rapids. Three of those were from customers who wished to have smart meters removed from their homes.

The remaining comments have focused on the smart meters themselves. Tormey said board staff will investigate all complaints.

l Comments: (319) 339-3175; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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