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Privacy & health concerns raised over City Light's new advanced meters

Seattle City Light has started installing their new advanced meters, but, some activists have already voiced privacy concerns over the new technology. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE -- Seattle City Light is preparing for their "mass deployment" of advanced meters this summer, as they begin to transition the entire city to the new device despite concerns from some activists.

City Light plans to install about 450,000 meters by the end of 2018, joining the more than 50 million households nationwide that already use the technology.

Advanced meters contain a radio transceiver card inside them which allows the meter to collect and send data on the household's power usage. The meters installed this summer will measure usage in 15 minute intervals, and send data to a communications network six times per day. They will no longer need meter readers.

Customers will be able to go online and view their usage on a daily basis. City Light believes they will be able to use that data to make their infrastructure more efficient and eventually lower prices for customers. They will also get automated outage reporting, which will help them restore power more quickly.

"This really is a transformation of the ability of the utility to serve the customer in a much more effective way," City Light Spokesman Scott Thomsen said.

But a group of activists have taken a strong stance against what they call "smart meters."

"I would just really encourage people to do the research," said Jordan Van Voast, a volunteer with Safety Utility Meters Alliance Northwest.

SUMA and Seattle Privacy Coalition have raised a laundry list of concerns, including privacy, security and health. Similar concerns have been raised around the country.

SPC claims the new meters are "effectively recording when the lights are on or off," and the system could be vulnerable to hackers or cyberterrorism.

City Light says the system is secure and encrypted, resembling an online banking system. They also stressed that the only information the meters are capable of recording is a blanket power usage for the household - it cannot see individual rooms or devices. But SPC believes those meters could be capable of recording more precise information.

Seattle's City Council directed City Light to create an opt-out provision, which allows people to decline the advanced meter for a digital meter that does not have the radio transceiver. But opting out will cost households about $124 upfront and $15 per month. City Light says less than 100 people have already opted out, though it is still early in the process.

"A true opt-out would be an opt-in," activist Jordan Van Voast said.

Van Voast says there's no data to prove that advanced meters will create a more efficient, cost effective system. He also raised health concerns tied to the radio frequency from the advanced meters. But City Light says the meter's emission is less than a cell phone's.

Van Voast also voiced environmental concerns. He produces solar energy, and says he isn't eligible for the opt-out provision because of it. He believes the City should investigate other power options that may prove better than our current electrical system.

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