New FPL meters sparking little debate

During the next four months, nearly 158,000 Florida Power & Light Co. customers on the Treasure Coast will start receiving new electric meters on their homes and businesses that FPL officials say will end monthly visits by meter readers, reduce power outages and let customers check their electric use online.

Utilities across Florida and the U.S. are changing to this new "smart meter" technology, a key part of a government-subsidized effort aimed at building a more energy-efficient electric grid. It can transmit your home's energy use in real time. Proponents say smart meters also can help prevent some power outages even before they occur by signaling problems and remotely rerouting electrical loads.

But some people on the Treasure Coast and elsewhere say smart meters are a dumb and dangerous idea that will also cost jobs.

Their worries, deemed unfounded by FPL officials, include health concerns about constant electromagnetic transmissions from meters, guarding privacy about electric use in the home, eliminating meter reading jobs and reports the meters can cause fires.

"To this day, we haven't had any fires caused by smart meters," said Bryan Olnick, FPL's vice president for customer service, smart grid solutions and meter operations. He said there have been a few isolated instances when meters have "overheated," but they were caused by bad wiring, not the devices themselves.

"The box or meter case that the meter goes into, these are situations that can have problems whether it's a smart meter or not," Olnick said.

Carol Medeiros, an FPL customer and smart meter opponent in Stuart, isn't buying that explanation.

"I think it's just a regular mantra — they're going to blame everything on the customer," said Medeiros, who was among the first customers on the Treasure Coast to have a new smart meter installed on her home.

One-quarter of FPL's $800 million upgrade to its electric grid is being paid with a federal Department of Energy grant. Customers' rates won't change, FPL spokeswoman Marie Bertot said.

Smart meters transmit radio signals — as evidenced by the Federal Communications Commission identification number on each meter. They also receive radio signals from the power company that can be used to turn electricity on or off.

Installation of the new meters began in late October for FPL's 89,646 Martin County customers. The utility's 51,391 Indian River County customers are scheduled to get new meters beginning in February, and St. Lucie County's 116,800 FPL customers beginning in March.

"Long term, FPL's investment in smart grid will help us achieve greater operational efficiency," Bertot said. "By operating more efficiently, we're keeping our customers' bills among the lowest in the state."

Miami-Dade and Broward counties were the first in Florida to receive smart meters. Additionally, Gulf Power Co. in the Panhandle and Progress Energy in Central Florida plan to install the meters.

Medeiros had her home's smart meter turned off — at least temporarily — after saying she experienced headaches when the new meter began broadcasting information on her home's electrical use.

"Were (the headaches) stress from having the meter on the house? Or was it because the meter was right outside my bedroom?" Medeiros said. "What I know is that I don't have (the headaches) now."

Officials at FPL send postcards to households telling customers when smart meters are about to be installed. Jeffrey Pedersen of Stuart got one and sent a "notice of no consent to trespass and surveillance" to FPL and its agents.

His letter said wireless data broadcast from a smart meter would invade his privacy by transmitting information about his daily habits that would be stored in permanent databases.

"Those with access to the smart meter databases can review a permanent history of household activities, to gain a highly invasive and detailed view of the lives of the occupants," wrote Pedersen, who sells wireless networks and information technology.

"Those databases may be shared with, or fall into the hands of, criminals, blackmailers, corrupt law enforcement, private hackers of wireless transmissions, power company employees and other unidentified parties," he added, "who may act against the interest of the occupants under metered surveillance."

Pedersen said FPL should be required to get a customer's written consent before installing smart meters on a home.

He said FPL delayed installing a smart meter on his home after receiving the letter.

Olnick said FPL does not share information about power consumption with any third party, unless the customer consents to it.

Law enforcement sometimes uses excessive power consumption to identify indoor marijuana grow houses, but smart meters don't affect that.

"We have to respond to any kind of legal court request, whether it is a smart meter or not," Olnick said.

Olnick also said FPL uses safeguards against unauthorized signal interception.

"The system that we use and the

information that we transmit from the smart meter is fully encrypted with the same technology that's used in the banking industry," Olnick said.

As of Nov. 18, Florida's Public Service Commission, which regulates FPL and other investor-owned utilities, reported 92 "contacts" from electric customers about smart meters. Cindy Muir, PSC spokeswoman, could not specify what issues these people addressed or whether consumers were phoning to praise or decry the new meters.

"Most people do not contact the call center with a compliment," she said.

All investor-owned utilities in Florida are moving toward automated meter reading, Muir said, but only some types of meters are like the ones being installed by FPL — capable of two-way communication.

Olnick said being able to communicate with meters will quickly diagnose complaints about interruptions in electrical service.

Neither of the two municipal electric utilities on the Treasure Coast have plans to switch to two-way smart meters.

Vero Beach is now talking with FPL about selling its electric utility. It's doubtful the city will invest in smart meters while that sale is possible, said Tom Ellis, Vero Beach's senior meter technician."Smart meter is an excellent technology," Ellis said. "It eliminates any errors by the meter readers and it also eliminates the dog-bite factor when readers come into a yard."

Ellis discounted people's worries about electromagnetic transmissions, or EMTs, causing health problems.

"They should be more worried about the hair dryer that they hold right next to their head," he said. "The amount of EMT it broadcasts is huge."

About one-third of the electric meters used by the Fort Fierce Utilities Authority can be read off-site, said spokeswoman Levette Dixon. Homes with bad dogs and meters in hard-to-reach places get them, she said, but the meters are not the two-way variety now being installed by FPL.

Most meter-reading jobs will be eliminated when FPL converts all its 4.5 million customers to smart meters by 2013. Bertot said 160 meter-reading jobs statewide already have been eliminated, but FPL has avoided layoffs by using attrition and by moving workers to other jobs within the company.

Thirty-eight additional FPL meter-reading jobs will be eliminated by year's end in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, she said.

Most Treasure Coast meters will be changed in 2012; Bertot said she did not have a number of job eliminations for that year.

Pedersen said spending public money to eliminate jobs seems odd in this economy.

"Here we are in the U.S., trying to create new jobs and we're spending federal money to lay off meter readers," he said.

How they work

Smart meters are part of an upgrade to Florida Power & Light Co.'s electrical transmission system that will be installed on the home. When activated (usually several months after installation), the meters enable two-way wireless signals between the power company and its customer.

Smart meters broadcast a home's electrical usage, eliminating the need for monthly visits by a meter reader to bill for electric.

Customers can go online and view how much electricity they are using by the month, day or hour.

The two-way wireless technology enables the power company to quickly identify power outages, reroute power around the trouble spot and confine the outage to a smaller area. It also will enable the company to turn a home's power off or on remotely.

Source: Florida Power & Light Co.

By the numbers

Florida Power & Light Co. plans to convert all of its 257,838 customers on the Treasure Coast to smart meters. Installation in Martin County began in late October; Indian River County installations are scheduled to begin in February; St. Lucie County installations are scheduled to begin in March.

FPL customers in Indian River County: 51,392

FPL customers in St. Lucie County: 116,800

FPL customers in Martin County: 89,646

FPL customers in Florida: 4.5 million

Cost to convert all FPL customers to smart meters: $800 million

Portion of cost borne by U.S. Department of Energy grant: $200 million

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