Citing health concerns, some NC utility customers say no to smart meters

A utility smart meter has a digital display and gives customers detailed information through a website about their electricity usage.
A utility smart meter has a digital display and gives customers detailed information through a website about their electricity usage.

Duke Energy’s plan to roll out two-way smart meters to 3.2 million customers in North Carolina in the coming years is generating static from a vociferous minority of customers who say they are highly sensitive to radio frequencies and want nothing to do with the program.

Charlotte-based Duke is planning to propose an opt-out fee in June for these customers who complain of headaches, ear-ringing, dizziness and nausea from exposure to wireless frequencies. But they might have to pay a steep price for the privilege, based on a similar request Duke has filed in Ohio.

Duke initially suggested charging Ohio residential customers $1,073.10 for customers who want to have an old-fashioned utility meter at their home, then revised the one-time charge to $426.04. The utility also wants to charge Ohio households $40.63 a month for meter readings.

Duke Energy Carolinas plans to submit a proposed opt-out rate to the N.C. Utilities Commission in June. Duke has installed 495,000 advanced meters in the state and bypassed 312 customers who objected to the new two-way meters. The company’s Raleigh-based utility subsidiary, Duke Energy Progress, has about 65,000 customers on smart meters at this time. The commission, which regulates utility rates and tariffs, has not indicated if it plans to schedule a public hearing to address the issue, which is generating considerable buzz among concerned customers.

The Utilities Commission has received more than 60 emails and letters expressing concern about the advent of smart meters from people who have organized their lives to avoid WiFi, microwave emissions and other wireless signals, and say smart meters would bombard them with debilitating radio waves.

These customers have filed personal testimonials along with studies, reports and accounts from other states where public officials have wrestled with the alleged side effects of wireless technology. One of the reports, by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, warns: “Multiple studies correlate RF exposure with diseases such as cancer, neurological disease, reproductive disorders, immune dysfunction, and electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

Avoiding WiFi

Andrew McAfee of Raleigh submitted a 45-page filing, noting prominently: “Sent from a cabled computer with the WiFi turned off.”

McAfee is a music professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, plays principal horn with the North Carolina Opera Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, and is a former principal horn with the North Carolina Symphony. He said he came down with mood swings, burning skin, heart palpitations and other symptoms when living across the street from a TV transmission tower and cell towers in 2000.

In a constant effort to dodge wireless frequencies, he’s now living in his fourth house in Raleigh and steers clear of public libraries, Starbucks and other WiFi hotspots.

“Your body basically becomes an antenna,” he said from his landline phone last week. “I immediately feel a tingling, burning sensation on my scalp.”

He made arrangements in 2012 for Duke Energy Progress to provide him with a meter that can transmit signals back to the company over a landline, at a monthly cost of $4.80. After picking up electro-magnetic sensations from his neighbor’s utility meter, McAfee is now paying Duke for a landline meter at his neighbor’s house, too. Progress has 22 customers on landline meters, but the program is closed to new applicants, said spokeswoman Meghan Miles.

“These meters are designed to burst a radiation signal out a couple of miles,” McAfee said of smart meters. “Imagine every house in your neighborhood blipping out these things all day.”

Deemed safe by many

Duke’s position here and in Ohio is that there is no scientific evidence that wireless frequencies cause health problems. In addition to utility industry studies that vouch for the safety of smart meters, the American Cancer Society has also signed off on smart meter technology, even though the organization acknowledges that that radio frequencies, or RF, are a possible carcinogen.

“Because, the amount of RF radiation you could be exposed to from a smart meter is much less than what you could be exposed to from a cell phone, it is very unlikely that living in a house with a smart meter increases risk of cancer,” the American Cancer Society concluded in 2014.

Duke contends that customers who don’t want a smart meter on their property have several options: pay extra each month to stay on a dumb meter, or pay an electrician several hundred dollars or more to move the smart meter away from your house.

In Ohio, Duke is requesting that if regulators decide to postpone charging customers who forgo smart meters, those customers should still be required to pay a one-time fee of $126.70.

Duke, the nation’s largest electric utility, said smart meters will let the company pinpoint outages and monitor customer usage to increase reliability and cut expenses.

Opposition from afar

The Public Staff, the state’s consumer protection agency in utility matters, has sided with Duke.

“Obviously if there was this mountain of credible experts saying everybody’s going to get cancer from it, we would give it serious consideration,” said James McLawhorn, an engineer who heads the Public Staff’s electric division.

Among the ream of public comments, Deborah Greene, a physician who works in the mental health field, urged the Utilities Commission to show compassion to people who say they suffer from electrohypersensitivity, or EHS.

“As a physician, I’ve read the research and I know that there is no such thing as EHS sensitivity,” Greene wrote. “However, I work in mental health and it is a fairly common delusion. Like most delusions it responds to neither evidence nor medication. And these people do suffer. Just because something isn't real, it doesn't mean that it cannot cause suffering.”

Objections to smart meters lodged with the Utilities Commission include pleas from scientists, physicians, radiologists, nurses and other health care professionals. A few were sent from thousands of miles away.

One letter, spanning 43 pages, was submitted by Cindy Sage, a founder of the BioInitiative Working Group in California, an oft-cited research organization by people who claim sensitivity to electromagnetic fields and radio frequency radiation.

Another leading critic of RF radiation, Olle Johansson, submitted a comment from Sweden, where he’s an associate professor at the Karolinska Institutet, a medical university in Stockholm. Johansson compared the risk of radio frequencies to public health dangers of past decades that the experts initially dismissed as harmless, such as DDT, radioactivity, tobacco and asbestos.

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski