Michigan ‘smart meter’ hearing elicits health fears

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michiganians packed a state House panel hearing Tuesday to voice their concerns with so-called “smart meters” that transport utility usage information directly to companies.

Many residents who testified in the nearly filled committee room said they worry that the new utility meters hurt their health and invade their privacy because they have no say in whether the company can install the particular kind of meter at their home unless they pay extra fees. Utility representatives countered that studies have shown their concerns are unfounded.

Jasmine Early of Sterling Heights said she was infuriated that DTE Energy sent workers onto her property without her permission. She urged others to believe people who testified before the committee about alleged health problems they believe to be associated with the electronic smart meters.

“I don’t want it in my house,” Early said. “We are suffering health issues. Who is gonna help us? You can mock us, you can call us fools. But we are the ones who are suffering.”

DTE Energy Vice Chairman Steven Kurmas said he understands people’s fears, but they are are unfounded.

“There’s been a lot of misnomers about this technology, and I always just quiver when I hear somebody say they went to the internet for their explanation,” Kurmas said, citing “numerous studies” that don’t show any associated health risks.

If DTE customers want to opt out, they can pay an extra $8 per month to have an older, digital meter that does not electronically transmit information to the company.

Smarts meters give off low levels of radio-frequency radiation, but much less cell phones, according to the American Cancer Society, which adds that it’s not clear if the meters pose any increased cancer risk.

Radio-frequency radiation has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” but “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 cancer society says.

he House Energy Policy Committee hearing was scheduled because of a bill introduced by panel chairman and Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Midland, that would let Michigan residents opt out of such “smart meter” installations and instead request that utility companies use old analog machines that do not transmit any information directly to companies.

“A private property owner should not be forced by a monopoly” to have these meters installed, Glenn said, referring to an electricity market largely dominated by Consumers and DTE. An advanced meter wouldn’t be installed unless a customer “was properly notified and had not opted out,” according to a House Fiscal Agency summary.

The bill would allow residents to “self-report” their utility usage to Consumers Energy or DTE Energy and let company representatives verify consumers’ reports several times a year, Glenn said.

He didn’t indicate during the hearing whether the fears are justified.

Glenn urged committee members to consider it a “philosophical” rather than a technical problem about whether the property owners or a company decides when certain technology is installed on someone’s property.

Twenty-five states including Michigan have rules regulating how utilities use smart meters, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some states allow consumers to opt out and provide certain data privacy protections, but most let utility companies to install and operate the technology.

DTE’s Kurmas downplayed privacy concerns by saying the company only collects information on how much electricity is used.

“All that we can tell from our meter is how much electricity they use,” Kurmas said. “Nothing more. I can’t tell what appliances are running, when they’re running them. No more information is gathered from this meter than could be gathered by standing next to their old analog meter.”

Many at the hearing groaned or made exclamations during Kurmas’ testimony. One person began yelling and pointing at a Consumers Energy official as he walked out of the room.

Consumers Energy representatives didn’t get a chance to testify. But the Jackson-based utility said in a later statement that there are no problems with its 1.4 million smart meters and 400,000 “gas communication modules” as it nears finishing with the installment of a total 1.8 million smart meters and 600,000 gas modules.

“Our upgraded meter technology sends us one text message a day from each home or business with their energy use — this ensures customers have access to updated energy use info and receive an accurate bill each month,” said Lisa DeLacy, Consumers’ executive director of smart energy. “We are concerned that this legislation could limit the company’s ability to provide this updated technology to our customers, and unfairly shifts the costs of maintaining older equipment to customers who have new meters.”



Twitter: @MikeGerstein