A technological device designed to be small and inconspicuous was the center of a debate in Fountain Tuesday.
A grassroots group against smart meters is gaining momentum. The group, Fountain Valley Citizens Against Smart Meters, wants to stop Fountain Utilities from replacing meters it uses to track customers' utility consumption with smart meters.
Fountain Utilities Director Curtis Mitchell said smart meters use smart technology to more accurately and economically track energy consumption.
The opposition collected almost 1,000 signatures this summer to get an initiative on the ballot in November. The initiative would ask voters to weigh in on the fate of the smart meter program in Fountain. If the initiative passed, Fountain Utilities would have to remove and replace the smart meters.
Darrell Couch is a Fountain resident and part of the group against the new technology. He works closely with technology, writing programs for companies in the computer industry and the government.
He was familiar with the technology used in smart meters previously, but got involved in the local grassroots group when he found out Fountain Utilities was considering rolling out a smart meter program for its customers.
"The technology was supposed to be voluntary, and when they came out and said we are going to put them everywhere, we said we don't really want them everywhere," said Couch.
Couch said research shows smart meters emit a high radio frequency, making them health hazards. He is also concerned that information tracked and stored in the meter can be exploited. He said the new technology is an invasion of privacy.
"They can gather a lot of information about what kind of appliances you have, how new they are, whether they are green appliances, when you use them, how often you use them. All this will be used to set time-of-use rates," said Couch.
Time-of-use rates would mean utilities would cost more if consumed during certain periods of the day. For example, customers could be charged more to run an air conditioner at 4 p.m. than it would at 4 a.m. because more people would also be using energy.
Mitchell said Fountain Utilities has no plan to establish time-of-use rates in the future. He said Fountain Utilities would not benefit from time-of-use rates under its current wholesale power contract.
Fountain Utilities sent a new meter and an old meter to a medical supply company to compare their health impacts on customers. Mitchell said test results showed the smart meter did not have adverse health effects.
Fountain Utilities wrapped up phase one of its smart meter program at the end of May. It installed smart meters on several hundred homes. It rolled out phase two of its plan in mid-June. Phase two would install smart meters on 15,000 households, schools and businesses.
Mitchell is concerned the ballot initiative could have a huge impact on customers. If it passes, Fountain Utilities would have to remove and replace the smart meters it has already installed. The utilities company used money from a grant to purchase its smart meters. It would also have to repay the grant. In total, it would cost customers more than $5 million.
Mitchell said smart meters will eventually help customers monitor their energy use in real time. He said that way, customers will be able to quickly identify a leaky faucet or a broken toilet instead of discovering the problem after being hit with a high bill from the utility company at the end of the month.
Mitchell said Fountain Utilities plans to establish a permanent opt-out program. Couch is concerned that if he opts out, he will be hit by high tariffs and fees. He said the financial cost could force people into the smart meter program.
Customers will ultimately decide if the technology is a good move for their community in November.