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Smart meters will cost jobs, but risks overblown

Electromagnetic radiation is everywhere these days, from cellphones to Wi-Fi to radio and television signals. Now the power company is in the process of adding a small amount to what is already there by installing “smart meters” to record your electricity usage and transmit the data electronically for billing purposes.

Some local residents are alarmed about this, claiming adverse health effects, the risk of fire and the loss of privacy. None of these concerns is persuasive to us, but if you are convinced a smart meter will imperil your family’s health, safety or privacy, you can opt out of the installation and keep your existing analog meter.

That will cost you. We’re not pleased at the expense of opting out, but there is a logical reason for it, and for the fact that Oregon’s opt-out fee is more than what many California residents pay.

Pacific Power will allow you to keep your old analog meter if you pay $137 up front and an additional $36 a month to cover the cost of a power company employee coming to your house to read your meter. That amount is based on the company’s actual cost of reading an individual meter, and it was verified and approved by the state Public Utility Commission, which is charged with protecting the interest of ratepayers.

California power customers pay substantially less to opt out. But that’s because California law allows its Public Utility Commission to “socialize” the costs, meaning customers who don’t opt out help pay the costs of those who do.

It’s undeniable that smart meters will mean Pacific Power won’t have to employ as many meter readers, saving labor cost and eliminating some jobs. We asked Pacific Power if ratepayers will see reduced power bills as a result. The answer: Rates won’t go down, but they probably won’t go up, either, or they won’t increase as much or as fast as they otherwise would. The Public Utility Commission is diligent about requiring utility companies to disclose all their costs and justify rate increases, so we’re not just taking the power company’s word for that.

What about privacy? It’s possible to find alarmist claims on the internet that smart meters will let the power company know what appliances you are using, at what time, and even what television program you’re watching. While the technology to do this and more certainly exists, Pacific Power representatives assure us they couldn’t care less what you watch on TV or when you turn on your electric range, and we have no reason to doubt them. The only data a smart meter collects is the total power consumption in your house and the time of day — the same data your existing meter records now. The only difference is a smart meter reports that data more often.

There are benefits to smart meters beyond saving the power company time and money. Ratepayers will be able to track their own power use on a secure website that can predict the amount of their next monthly bill and receive text messages if their consumption increases, thereby saving money.

Smart meters also will notify the power company if the power goes out, meaning repair crews can be dispatched faster and power restored more quickly.

If there is anything to be dismayed about here, it’s that smart meters are another step on the road to automating everything, at the expense of jobs that used to be done by human beings. It’s not the dire threat to public health and well-being that opponents would have you believe.

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