By Michael Salerno
For Hometown News
Despite objections from some citizens that Big Brother might be watching their electric usage, the deployment of technologically advanced electric meters is expected to finish this month.
To enhance the way it monitors its customers' electric use, Florida Power & Light moved forward with the installation of "smart meters" -- electric meters based on new technology -- throughout the state. These meters operate digitally rather than mechanically, and would no longer require a meter reader to access the data because the meters report remotely to FPL.
Supporters of the so-called smart meters say they modernize electric monitoring, allowing for increased reliability and would help restore power outages faster. Opponents have concerns over privacy risks due to the digital transmission of the data and health risks over radio frequency emissions from the meters.
Those concerns led the Volusia County Council to pass an "opt-in" resolution encouraging the Florida Public Service Commission to require FPL to obtain permission from homeowners before installing a smart meter on their property.
County Councilman Josh Wagner said he feels property owners should have the right to decide whether they want the meters or not.
"It should be the power company's duty to educate a home owner of the benefits of a smart meter and not force it on them," Mr. Wagner said.
Following the county's lead, the cities of Port Orange and Ormond Beach recently passed similar legislation after hearing a number of concerns from citizens who don't want the new meters installed. South Daytona leaders, who are expected to negotiate a new franchise agreement with FPL following a public vote rejecting the establishment of a municipal electric utility, passed legislation against the installation of smart meters.
Sandra Stuart, an Ormond Beach resident, said she supported her city's opt-in resolution because she feared the smart meters would monitor more than how much electricity she's using.
"I really don't want the electric company to know what time of day I'm using the computer," Ms. Stuart said. "I do believe these things are going to start talking to our appliances, telling us how much we should use and how much electricity we shouldn't use. It's an invasion of my privacy."
Another Ormond Beach resident, Jim Schultz, echoed those privacy concerns while adding he believes health issues exist with the meters due to the radio frequency emissions.
"Do you want your head on your bed next to a microwave burst, happening between a whole series of smart meters chattering to each other?" he said. "I don't think so."
Elaine Hinsdale, an FPL spokeswoman who specializes in smart meters, said FPL's smart grid technology has been tested to ensure processes operate privately and securely. She added smart meters would only measure a customer's energy usage data and nothing more.
"They don't store or transmit any personal information," she said. "They just record how our customers are using that energy, just like the old meters."
Ms. Hinsdale also said there is "no scientific evidence" the radio frequency from smart meters negatively impacts a person's health. The meters' radio frequency emissions are "hundreds of times lower" than the limits set by the Federal Communications Commission.
FPL has installed more than 4 million meters throughout Florida since July and will conclude the installation in Volusia County this month, Ms. Hinsdale said.
Ms. Hinsdale said only "a small number" of people across the state are opposed to smart meters. Documents from FPL show about 14,000 customers throughout the state have refused the meter installation.
But that "small number" vocally opposes the meters -- not just in Florida. A website, StopSmartMeters.org, shows opposition across the country as far west as California and as far north as Maine. The website links to a number of empirical resources aimed at refuting what the electric companies are saying about the benefits of smart meters.
The Florida Public Service Commission, which regulates FPL, is considering its options following the passage of the opt-in resolutions and a public workshop Sept. 20. As it stands, the agency directed the company to proceed with the meter installation, approving the deployment of smart meters during FPL's 2009 rate hearing.
Ms. Hinsdale believes smart meters will result in more reliable electric service than with the existing analog meters, because they will enable FPL to prevent power outages and restore outages faster.
"Almost a third of all homes in the U.S. have smart meters," Ms. Hinsdale said. "We're confident that as people become more familiar with the technology, they'll be as enthusiastic about the benefits as we are."