Villages residents fear 'smart' meters invade privacy
Jan 25, 2013 (Orlando Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
"Smart" meters are the new high-tech upgrade for many electric utilities. They can wirelessly transmit electric usage data, making monthly meter-reader visits a thing of the past.
But some see a dark side to smart meters and believe they put their privacy at risk and represent a new means of government intrusion. Such concerns were voiced at a meeting this week attended by hundreds of residents of The Villages, the booming retirement community northwest of Orlando.
"I don't want this in my house. I do not want the United Nations in my house," said Aileen Milton, who is with The Villages Tea Party. "You may not have ill intentions but not if it's in the hands of the U.N."
Jim Duncan, CEO of Sumter Electric Cooperative, tried to counteract the fears -- which have been fueled by websites and conservative talk shows -- by highlighting his conservative credentials.
"Politically and socially, I am probably as conservative as anybody in this audience. I am a member of the NRA, I believe in lower taxes, limited government," Duncan said. "I don't see a conflict in those beliefs and the meters we're using."
Utilities in Tallahassee and Ocala have had the smart meters for years and haven't seen those worries materialize. Michelle Bono, a Tallahassee spokeswoman, said residents had similar questions when they were first installed in 2008, but those concerns have subsided.
"It's that general distrust of government or business and uncertainty about something new," Bono said. "But now that most people see the benefits, they see why the technology makes sense."
More than 7.5 million smart meters are already installed in Florida and more utilities, including the Orlando Utilities Commission, have plans to install them. Nationwide, there are more than 36 million of them.
Smart meters are quickly replacing old-fashioned analog meters. Electric usage data is sent via radio frequencies, which helps utilities cut costs, better manage the electric grid and even offer instant alerts about power outages. Customers can save money with more details about their electricity use.
In Central Florida, all Florida Power & Light customers will have the new meters by April, FPL spokeswoman Elaine Hinsdale said. Only a fraction of customers, less than one percent, didn't want the meters. Leesburg's utility has installed the meters for its customers.
OUC plans to roll out new digital meters to its nearly 228,000 customers, spokesman Tim Trudell said. Electric meters will be installed by the end of the year, while water meters will be converted in 2014.
But some people are afraid of health risks from the radio transmissions, though scientific studies show the exposure is negligible compared to what's emitted by a cell phone. They worry that criminals could misuse the data to commit a burglary. They also think a government agency -- even the United Nations -- could use it to monitor people and control their electricity use.
At the meeting in The Villages, Duncan emphasized that his electric co-op won't intrude on people's privacy. Smart meters will go in only in new homes and businesses -- there are no plans to retrofit existing homes.
"Honestly, we really don't care what you're doing in your homes," he said. "We only have this to improve reliability and cost effectiveness."
Following an hour-long session on smart meters, some residents had a better understanding of the technology. A few conceded it was a good business move but remain wary.
"I think it's a issue of freedom of choice," said Jeff Atwood, a Villages resident who thinks people should be able to choose whether or not to have a smart meter. "It's not a free market. We don't have freedom to choose our electric utility."
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