The days of PUD workers traversing backyards to reach household meters, such as these at an apartment complex in Everett, will soon be over. (Sue Misao / The Herald)

The days of PUD workers traversing backyards to reach household meters, such as these at an apartment complex in Everett, will soon be over. (Sue Misao / The Herald)

Snohomish County PUD embraces ‘smart’ meters despite concerns

A handful of customers said they were worried about privacy, peak-hour rate increases and safety.

EVERETT — Soon many Snohomish County power customers will get a new “smart” device in their homes.

This week the Public Utility District board of commissioners voted 2-1 to move forward with a plan to replace ratepayers’ electric meters with digital ones.

At a commission meeting held online Tuesday, eight customers voiced concerns about the devices collecting data on their daily lives and the potential for rates to increase during peak hours, among other worries.

Commissioners Sid Logan and Tanya Olson voted to approve the proposed “Connect Up” plan, saying the district has done its due diligence in research and public outreach. Under the plan, Snohomish County PUD customers will join roughly 87% of ratepayers in Washington who are using advanced meters, according to the district.

The days of district meter readers traversing backyards to reach household meters will be over. The PUD serves more than 355,000 electric customers in Snohomish County and on Camano Island.

Smart meters give customers and the PUD detailed information on how they’re using energy, which commissioners said can help ratepayers lower power consumption. The technology also gives customers more control over when they pay their bill.

The program is in its early stages, with implementation tentatively set for 2023, according to the district. It will cost nearly $90 million to deploy over the next five years. Program director Mark Flury said the move will ultimately lower the cost to provide power. The PUD anticipates a return on investment of about $40 million, due to decreased equipment costs and increased efficiency.

But some Snohomish ratepayers at Tuesday’s meeting said the switch hasn’t gone as planned in nearby districts.

One commenter from Shoreline pointed south, where Seattle City Light’s smart meter program was $17.4 million over budget in 2018, according to Crosscut.

Olson attributed the neighboring utility’s troubles to “a poor business model, poor execution and, in my opinion, very poor planning.” Snohomish County’s business plan, though, she said is “solid.”

Other commenters said a global pandemic is not the time for such a large infrastructure investment.

“That this is a precarious financial moment is clear,” Edmonds resident Downa Lahti said.

The new meters will allow ratepayers to opt in to something called time-of-day rates. The district will charge customers more for energy usage during peak hours, like in the morning, when most people shower and get ready for work.

But the program would also offer rebates or cheaper rates for using power during typically low-usage times, like at night.

PUD spokesperson Aaron Swaney said the Connect Up plan will result in savings for all ratepayers, not just those who opt in to the time-of-day structure.

“Because of the benefits of this program, it’ll decrease the potential for raising rates in the future and may lower rates,” Swaney said.

The district is piloting a time-of-day rate with select business customers, which PUD staff picked based on energy use patterns.

The new meters will also allow customers to prepay their bill, rather than pay for energy after it’s used. Ratepayers can schedule payments instead of relying on the district’s schedule.

The plan will save the district, and customers, money in other ways, Swaney said. It will do away with meter reading contracts; lower operational costs like gas; eliminate missed reads; and reduce the need to purchase power on the open market during peak usage times.

The PUD currently employs about 35 meter readers, Swaney said. They will remain on staff with the option to transition to another position. The district contracts another 40 meter readers from an outside company. That agreement ends in 2022.

Some commenters pushed for an opt-out policy that would allow any customer to refuse an advanced meter on their home entirely.

The PUD is considering an opt-out policy that would exclude residences of more than four units, as well as commercial or industrial properties. The policy has not yet been approved.

A handful of Snohomish County residents said they were concerned about radio waves emitted by the meters. Alvin Snapp, of Edmonds, wondered if the district thoroughly analyzed potential health hazards.

The meters transmit a maximum of about one watt of radio frequency energy, according to the PUD. The average amount emitted by the meters is about 0.01 watt, comparable to a cellphone, according to the district.

The Federal Communications Commission does not have an official standard for safe levels of exposure to radio frequency energy. But the commission’s guidelines limit radio frequency energy absorbed into the body by wireless devices to 1.6 watts per kilogram of tissue.

Lynnwood resident James Deal said the smart meters’ emissions, albeit small, are an unnecessary risk.

“It’s reckless to keep adding on more and more sources of radio frequency emissions,” he said.

Multiple residents also worried about smart meters’ ability to track ratepayers’ lives and habits, such as what appliances they use and when. The new smart meters would collect energy usage data in 15-minute increments, sending information directly to the district and to users.

“I think there’s such an intrusion into our daily lives that I can appreciate the concern for the privacy of our daily information,” said Olson, one of the commissioners.

But she offered her assurance that the district, as a public utility, has the public’s best interest in mind.

“I do believe that the recommendation includes a commitment to a very robust background system to protect customers’ privacy,” she said. “Does that mean there’s never going to be a breach? Nobody can guarantee that.”

Commissioner Rebecca Wolfe said she’s not worried about the district leaking customer data, but she isn’t sure about the third-party company that will manage the smart meters.

The district has not selected a vendor yet.

The PUD’s website touts several other benefits the “Connect Up” plan will bring customers.

It does away with the meter down payment currently required when moving into a new home, for one.

Service can also start and stop immediately. Right now, a physical meter reading is required, which can take up to six days, according to the PUD.

Customers will be able to access their usage data and make payments through an online portal.

The new meters will allow the district to more accurately monitor power outages, according to the PUD.

Some speakers felt the district only displayed the pros of smart meters, not the cons, during public outreach.

Wolfe, who voted against the new meters, took issue with the commission’s pro-smart-meter message.

“It disturbs me greatly that we have not allowed the public to be educated,” she said.

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