Smart Meters, Smart Idea?

By: Charlie Kaufman

Eugene Water and Electric Board is currently in the process of conducting their Smart Meter Pilot Project that will replace mechanical electric meters in the Friendly Area Neighborhood of Eugene with a new technology. Residents of the community have different thoughts on the subject as potential health risks from the “smart meters” may pose a threat.

“It’s controversial in terms of questions about the health ramifications,” says Friendly Neighborhood resident Deborah Simmons. “I see the benefits as being that we would get good feedback of our use and we would be able to view the time of day and know when we could turn things off and turn things on to improve the power supply. I see that as being a positive. The negative side of the health seems to be a little bit unclear as to what it is and when you include wireless routers and cell phone towers and everything else I’m not sure that it really adds significantly. We know that there are health risks related to cell phones but people use them all the time.”

The main concern for Friendly Area residents is the amount of transmission exposure from the meters. Many people fear that there would be negative health effects that would result from placing these meters on their homes and close to their families. John Femal, the community education coordinator at EWEB says that the transmission exposure is nothing to fear.

“Wi-Fi, baby monitors, radios, all members in this electro-magnetic spectrum are used from radio frequency waves,” Femal says. “You don’t sleep on your smart meter, but you sleep next to your phone. The amount of exposure is unbelievably small.”
The pilot project for these smart meters involves a 12-month testing period that began last year with 100 customers willing to test the product. Many companies such as Portland General Electric have made the switch to the smart meters and the city currently has over 150,000 meters.

A “Google Search” on the current smart meter technology does not benefit the situation in Eugene. The majority of results that come up from the search include the many dangers and negative effects that result from the meters.

“I guess if there’s a possibility that it’s going to emit radioactive particles, they should probably test it out but I think I’m in favor of it for the most part,” explains Kevin Poehner, an employee at Capella market in the Friendly Neighborhood. “I have done some research on the subject and it looks pretty sketch. At the same time though, the old system is kind of busted where the dude has to walk around and creep in my backyard and read the meter and do all that stuff. Long term it’s got a lot of potential but right now I understand it’s got some problems. I really can’t tell you if I am for or against it at this very moment.”

One of the other main concerns in implementing the smart meters in the Eugene area involves the loss of many jobs. Meter readers for EWEB would no longer be needed if the city decided to include the new technology in the future. This would be bad news for someone like Adam Morrison, who has been reading meters in the Eugene area for over 10 years.

“We talk about what would happen if they put the new meters in all the time during meetings,” says Morrison. “I’m not the type of person that likes to be stuck in an office all day and my current job lets me be outside interacting with people on a daily basis. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t be outside on a daily basis.”

Lane County has one of the highest unemployment rates per-capita in the country. Many worry that putting these new meters in Eugene homes will result in the loss of many jobs as the technology would do many of the things EWEB employees are currently doing. Morrison does not want to become one of the many unemployed residents in Eugene and feels that the new meters may lead to job loss.

“They told me that there would still be a position available, but honestly if I can’t do what I enjoy doing, I may move on and find something new to do with my life,” explains Morrison. “The use of this new system would force the company to rely on technology more than we ever have before. I think that having someone physically there with an accurate reading is much more important than trying something that might work and might have negative repercussions, especially when it comes to the health of an individual. I know that it may save money in the long run, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with the system we have in place right now.”

Adam Gleason, a University of Oregon Psychology student has been living in Eugene his entire life and believes that implementing the smart meters will only cause problems in the future.

“I’m not comfortable with the smart meters because they’re not tested and it takes people’s jobs away as well, which is not what we need right now,” says Gleason. “I have seen a lot of changes in this town since I was a kid, I don’t think that the inclusion of an untested technology with obvious difficulties right now is something that needs to be implemented right this second.”
Although the majority of community members find that the inclusion of smart meters is something negative, executing the use of new meters in the Eugene area could have many beneficial effects.

“In home displays are wireless communications directly from the meter and shows in real time what energy the home is using at that moment and what that is costing you per hour if you continued using it at that level,” explains Femal. “For many people in our county money is tight, this in home display would give residents an idea at how much money they are spending every hour.”

Skepticism with the new meters is everywhere, but many cities around the country including Portland have implemented the smart meters with no negative effects. Many Portland residents have seen a decrease in their monthly bill due to the new technology in their homes.

“I was definitely skeptical at first. It is empowering to me to be able to check the amount of power I am using at any time which is nice, and then alter my choices accordingly,” says pilot program participant Amanda Gibbons. “I have already cut my bill by $7 in one month, in the midst of cold weather this year.”

Putting new technology into effect is something that is always questionable. The use of these smart meters is no different. At a recent meeting in the Friendly Neighborhood area a vote was taken asking community members how they felt about implementing the new technology. The vote showed that about half the residents felt that the meters should be placed in the community and the other half felt that the current system is working just fine.

The mixed reactions in regards to the new smart meters that EWEB intends to incorporate are evident everywhere. Both the positive and negative aspects of this new technology will be weighed heavily in the near future as a decision is made on implanting these new devices. As of right now, the residents of Eugene will continue to weigh the pros and cons until a decision is reached.

About Charlie Kaufman

My name is Charlie Kaufman and I am a journalism student at the University of Oregon. I hope to focus on investigative journalism with an emphasis on sports. In the future I would like to be working with ESPN or CBS sports making sports documentary pieces that go into the lives of athletes rather than just focus on what they can do with their athletic ability. I also really enjoy science and informative documentary, where an individual can watch an hour or so film and get a full understanding of a new subject.
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