PUC investigation: No Big Brother behind new meters

Concerns that NV Energy's new "smart meters" are less-accurate and that they're designed to spy on homeowners so that the utility can sell private information are unfounded, according to a Public Utilities Commission staff investigation.

Opponents assert that they should be able to opt out of a systemwide update and keep their mechanical meters, but PUC staffers concluded that that could reduce operational savings and jeopardize the federal money that's paying more than one-third of the cost.

When the PUC reviews the report today, the staff will recommend that people not be allowed to keep their old analog meters because doing so would compromise the savings that the new federally supported system is supposed to generate. Part of the savings would come because individual meters wouldn't require in-person reading; they could be read remotely.

"If allowing an opt-out process either causes those operational savings not to materialize or imperils the availability of grant monies, staff believes that those choosing to opt out of the program should pay whatever amount is necessary to make other ratepayers whole," the staff report says. Instead, NV Energy should offer customers who demand a non-standard meter a digital meter capable of drive-by reading, it says.

It will cost $301 million for the utility to replace 1.3 million meters in the state. Of that, $138 million is a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy's Smart Grid Investment Grant Program. In the north, where NV Energy also provides natural gas service, the meters also will be connected to the gas meters.

The system will save the utility in the long run by allowing automated meter reading, remote service activation and termination. According to NV Energy, that means eliminating about 100 meter reader and other field position jobs, a savings of some $7 million a year.

According to the report, the meters also produce savings by providing updated electric consumption data every 15 minutes, enabling the utility to more efficiently manage its generation and purchasing of power.

But the program has raised a variety of protests.

Customers at two public hearings claimed, among other things, that radio frequency waves from the new meters can cause nausea, migraines and insomnia as well as interfere with medical devices. NV Energy countered that the new meters meet all health-safety requirements and that no evidence has tied health problems to radio signals.

Protesters also charged that the meters can identify every electric and electronic device used in the home.

"Only composite data on the whole house electrical consumption is transmitted," the report states. "Meters cannot detect consumption of individual devices."

A small group of Southern Nevada customers complained that the new meters significantly raised their bills because they aren't accurate. According to the report, the meters of all 60 of those customers were checked and found to be accurate. It says one possible explanation is that the old mechanical meters run slower as their gearing wears, gradually becoming inaccurate and under-measuring electric use. In those cases, the new digital meter would cause a higher electric bill because it was accurate, not inaccurate, according to the report.

The old meters are also becoming more expensive to maintain because no one in the U.S. makes them anymore.

Some protesters along with the American Association of Retired Persons urged the PUC to make sure that private information collected is kept private. NV Energy officials said their privacy policies already "prohibit the release of any customer information to anyone without either consent or a subpoena."

NV Energy officials said the meters don't transfer any data that contains personal information.

According to the report, to prevent hacking, the utility has "end-to-end encryption" of all data, including radio transmission between the meter and office. Access to the data center, according to the report, is restricted to authorized personnel.

"NV Energy has taken all reasonable measures to ensure customer privacy and security," the report says. That said, however, the report states that "no system is totally safe."

PUC members will review the staff report today in a hearing beginning at 9 a.m.


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