The La Plata Electric Association board Wednesday approved an opt-out policy for members who fear the wireless technology used by the utility’s smart meters.
The 12-member board passed the policy and accompanying rates unanimously. The vote came after more than three hours of discussion.
Several co-op customers raised unsubstantiated claims regarding the radio frequencies emitted by smart meters. In response to their concerns, LPEA is allowing members to opt out of having a smart meter installed at their homes. Those who opt out will be charged a $20 meter-reading fee four times a year.
LPEA is installing the Advanced Metering Infrastructure system to modernize its network. The Durango-based co-op says the smart readers will reduce billing errors and allow LPEA to immediately pinpoint outages.
Research gathered by LPEA says the radio frequency signals emitted by the meters are at much lower levels than cellphones or laptops, and pose no known health dangers.
LPEA’s critics were not persuaded. Deb Shisler, a retired teacher, said the signals had been linked to autism. Tina Sebastian, a beekeeper, worried the signals may play a role in the collapse of bee colonies seen in recent years.
Oscar Dominguez, of Pagosa Springs, demanded to know whether LPEA would allow homeowners to install a device known as the Smart Meter Guard. The device, which consists of stainless steel mesh attached to a stainless steel frame, sells for $129.95 on the manufacturer’s website.
LPEA officials were diplomatic. Board President Michael Rendon assured Sebastian that he, too, raises bees. “I’m very cognizant of bees’ roles in pollination,” he said.
Rendon told Dominguez the Smart Meter Guard would probably be acceptable if it didn’t interfere with reading the meter.
Smart-meter opponents pointed to a film on the subject, “Take Back Your Power.” LPEA officials pointed to statements from the American Cancer Society and World Health Organization.
Rendon watched the film and called it “heavy-handed.”
Davin Montoya, a board member from Hesperus, said the meters did not worry him.
“I have two meters,” he said. “I have grandchildren. I have pets. And I have no intention of opting out.”
The $20 quarterly fee to opt out was reduced from an earlier proposal by LPEA staff to impose a $50 monthly fee. LPEA officials said the lower fee will not fully recoup costs of manually reading the meters.
Mark Garcia, an LPEA board member from Pagosa Springs, said some customers object to effectively subsidizing the cost of members who opt out of the smart meters.
Passage of the policy kicks off a 30-day public comment period. The new rates take effect Jan. 1.
LPEA is using meters with a Tantalus communications system that uses small, half-watt radios at 900 megahertz frequencies to transmit data. They cost about $85 each, said Ron Meier, LPEA’s manager of engineering.
LPEA already has installed 29,000 of the new meters across its territory, including Durango and most of Archuleta County. The meters will be deployed in Vallecito and Bayfield during the first half of 2015, Meier said.
Smart meter opponents indicated the battle isn’t over.
“We’re putting together a group for a possible class-action lawsuit,” Dominguez said.
Shisler said her concerns about wireless technology extend beyond smart meters.
“That’s my next battle – Wi-Fi in the schools,” she said. “It’s hurting the kids.”