Baker Discusses New Smart Meters

Smart electric meters are being installed in homes across the country. The wireless devices replace old meters and transmit electricity usage data wirelessly to utilities. But there are concerns about accuracy and safety. Guy Raz talks to David Baker, energy reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, for more.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And I'm Guy Raz. And it's time for All Tech Considered.

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RAZ: Californians may soon be allowed to opt out of having a so-called smart meter installed in their homes. These are the wireless electronic utility meters that are increasingly replacing the old analog ones in parts of the country. Some customers are worried about possible radiation exposure from the smart meters. So, starting next year, those who prefer to have their units disconnected may be able to do so. But they'll have to pay a fee for that privilege.

David Baker covers energy for the San Francisco Chronicle and he joins us now. Welcome.

DAVID BAKER: Thanks for having me.

RAZ: First, what is the main argument that utility companies give for wanting to install smart meters?

BAKER: Well, the utilities and a lot of the government officials who regulate them look at smart meters as basically the most basic building block for a smart grid. If you want to improve the way our electricity grid works, make it smarter and stronger. The first thing you do is swap out the meters with these new digital ones, because they can show our hour by hour how much each customer is using, and they can send that information to the utility without the need of a meter reader.

So, essentially what you can do with these - what they hope that you can do with these - is show individual customers when they're using power, so everybody isn't trying to use electricity at the same time, which peak time is usually a mid to late afternoon. If they can shift some of that electricity usage, then the utilities won't have to commission as many new power plants to be built. And that's a big savings to everyone.

RAZ: So, what are the main objections of those who oppose them?

BAKER: The three big objections so far, first is accuracy. A lot of people have simply questioned whether or not these things work as well as they're advertised. Am I going to be charged the right amount? Is my bill going to change? The second big concern is essentially privacy. These things can tell, more or less, when you are home and when you're not because they can see when you are and aren't using power. And that sort of smacks of being the electronic version of letting your newspapers pile up on the doorstep when you're away from home.

Finally, the last concern that has become the major one in Northern California is you have people who are convinced that the wireless signals emitted by cell phones, laptop computers, and wireless smart meters are a health threat.

RAZ: So, David, after more than a year of hearing customer complaints, California's Public Utility Commission may offer a way out. What would it actually mean for customers? How would they get out of this?

BAKER: It would essentially mean that you're going to get a new meter regardless, a new digital meter but it wouldn't transmit to the utility. And you'd have to pay extra for that non-transmitting meter. Under the Utilities Commission's proposal you'd have to 90 bucks upfront, and 15 bucks more month by month after that. PG and E had suggested higher fees, up to 270 bucks in advance and then $14 month by month.

RAZ: California obviously is a leader in these smart meters. Do you have any sense that other utility companies around the country are eager to roll these out, or maybe holding back after California's experience?

BAKER: Well, I think pretty much all utility companies - if they're not already doing this, if they're not already installing it or at least looking at it - but PG and E's experience has sent shivers up and down their spines. That said, you still see utility after utility rolling these out bit by bit around the country. This is still going on.

RAZ: David Baker, thanks.

BAKER: Thank you.

RAZ: That's David Baker. He covers energy for the San Francisco Chronicle, talking about California's decision to possibly allow customers to opt out of that state's smart meter program.

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