Smart meters are easier to read but spark privacy concerns

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Digital smart meters like the one on the right can be read remotely.

Digital smart meters like the one on the right can be read remotely.

As Michigan power generators begin to switch to digital smart meters, some people are concerned that they step too far into customers’ private lives.

The state’s two major utilities have been replacing electric meters with smart meters across Michigan. The advantage is that they can be read remotely instead of having to send someone to read the meters directly.

DTE Energy has already installed more than 1.4 million smart meters, said Scott Simons, media relation specialist at the utility.

Consumer Energy is installing 1.8 million smart meters in Oceana, Muskegon, Ottawa, Allegan, Newaygo, and Kent counties in Michigan, according to a recent report in MiBiz, a West Michigan business publication.

These meters radio the company hourly updates of the electricity that customers use, Simons said.

The upgrade to a smart meter is like upgrading a cell phone to a smart phone, said Gary Kitts, executive director of the Michigan Public Service Commission.

“The standard meter is mechanical and by way of analogy, your old phone,” said Kitts. “The smart meters are meters that are computerized meters that work off electronic switches and are a lot more efficient.”

They are cheaper to operate and can shut off electricity remotely in case of emergency.

They can give you an accurate reading of your energy bill rather than just an estimate, Kitts said.

However, not everyone is thrilled about installing smart meters in their homes.

Shelby Township residents, John and Pauline Holeton are fighting smart meters by making videos, keeping up a website and organizing protests in cities like Detroit and Lansing.

“The main things that I am worried about are potential health hazards, my privacy and safety and our constitutional rights being violated,” said Pauline Holeton.

The information that energy companies will be able to access could fall into the hands of a third party such as hackers or police and be used in a negative way, she said.

“I am absolutely worried about someone being able to tell when I am not home by looking at these meter readings and being able to break into my home, or someone knowing exactly what I am doing,” she said.

Utility officials dismiss such concerns.

“There are a lot of myths associated with smart meters that are not true,” said Dennis McKee, communications director for Consumer Energy.

Energy companies cannot see whether a specific light or appliance is on, only how much energy the customer is using,” McKee said. It is Consumer Energy policy that employees cannot share information with outsiders.

Holeton and other critics also worry that radio frequencies from smart meters threaten health by exposing people to electromagnetic radiation.

“These meters do put out electromagnetic radiation and there’s no evidence to show that it is safe in any degree,” said David Lonier, an Auburn Hills resident who also protests them with the Holetons.

But Consumer Energy officials say that the radio frequencies used to transmit data are equivalent to one text message per day, well below the guidelines of the Federal Communications Commission.

Others worry about future privacy threats.

The American Civil Liberties Union says that while this information may not be used to monitor people now, the temptation to use it may become strong, as it was with cell phone tracking data and GPS systems.

Data privacy regulations in regards to smart meters were passed on Oct. 17 by the Michigan Public Service Commission, said Judy Palnau, media and public information specialist for the Michigan Public Service Commission.

They allow consumers a reasonable expectation to data privacy and limit the collection, use or disclosure of customer information to accomplishing primary utility purposes, according to a Public Service Commission press release. Customers must consent to any disclosure of information that the company would give to any outside sources.

“There are concerns with privacy for anything electronic now days,” said Kitts. “You want to make sure those things cannot be used to gain information from everyone regarding your private concerns.”


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