PUC to hear NV Energy smart meters concerns

The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada is set to begin hearing consumer complaints about NV Energy’s new smart meters.

And if public comments are any indication, that discussion, scheduled for Tuesday, will revolve around worries over health and cybersecurity.

NV Energy is swapping out 1.45 million conventional meters statewide with digital meters, which use radio-frequency identification chips similar to those in cellphones and Wi-Fi routers, to send power-use information directly to the utility. The company, which claims the NV Energize program would save $35 million a year in operating costs, has installed nearly 600,000 smart meters across Southern Nevada.

The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada approved the meter rollout in July 2010 after hearings into NV Energize. The commission studied evidence on the plan’s customer-privacy and cybersecurity measures, as well as radio-frequency output, costs and budget risks. NV Energy is using $138 million in federal stimulus money to help cover the $301 million program’s expense.

But the commission decided in October to give ratepayers another chance to comment in writing on the meters after some expressed concern about electromagnetic waves and potential security breaches.

By Friday, about 130 consumers had submitted written statements opposing the meters, including at least two dozen who filed the same pre-written "moratorium petition." The petition called the meters’ radio-frequency waves a cancer-causing agent and said the devices are a fire danger, and asked that customers who don’t want the meters be allowed to keep their conventional meter. About 1,400 ratepayers have asked to at least postpone smart-meter installation.

Other consumers blamed smart meters for health problems including ringing of the ears, skin cancer, hair loss, wrinkles, strokes, brain-cell death and Alzheimer’s disease. Some said they were concerned about smart meters’ vulnerability to hacking and identity theft.

The Bureau of Consumer Protection, which represents ratepayers, also commented. The agency’s concerns revolved around ratepayer privacy, how NV Energy would use information about power consumption and whether the utility would sell those details to third parties.

NV Energy filed a 383-page response on Friday afternoon. The filing notes that radio-frequency waves from smart meters are lower than naturally occurring levels released by the Earth or the human body. Emissions from microwave ovens are 120 times greater, while levels from cell phones are as much as 5,000 times greater, the filing said. Smart-meter emissions also "fall significantly below" Federal Communications Commission standards and do not pose a major health risk, the statement said.

NV Energy also pointed out that the commission’s 2010 hearing into smart meters found that the devices’ technology is reliable and accurate. In accuracy tests by the University of Nevada, Reno the failure rate on installed meters is less than 0.23 percent.

On the consumer-protection side, NV Energy said it’s one of a handful of utilities nationwide that has included meter encryption for a more secure network. The company added that it developed the first smart-meter cybersecurity plan formally approved by the U.S. Department of Energy. Plus; it uses customer information only for its own billing purposes; and does not give customer details to third parties, per the commission’s Consumer Bill of Rights.

The commission will discuss the filings at 10 a.m. Tuesday in its offices at 9075 W. Diablo Drive, Suite 250. The public is welcome to attend, but the commission will accept only written comments from workshop participants.

The commission has a Web page with information about smart meters. Visit puc.nv.gov and click on the "Smart Meters" option in the menu on the left.

To submit comments for the workshop, deliver a written statement in person or via mail to the commission. Consumers can also file statements electronically by going to the commission’s website, clicking on "Administration" and choosing the "Electronic Filing System" option.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.

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