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August 20, 2012

Vermont Girds Itself for Another Debate on Smart Grids



U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent-Vermont) and environmental leaders held a news conference on August 20 calculated to convince constituents that a smart grid, complete with residential smart meters, is the type of electric upgrade that Vermonters should welcome in their ″Green Mountain State.”

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"The bottom line is that smart grid offers real benefits for consumers and the environment," said Sanders, a member of both the Senate energy and environment committees. Sanders quoted Department of Energy data to support his case. In the long term, he noted, smart-grid technology can cut carbon emissions from electricity use by up to 15 percent a year. 

The regional debate over the next-generation technology began in 2009, when Vermont received $69 million in federal stimulus funds to modernize its electric transmission system as part of a more than $4 billion national investment in smart grid technology.

Those who support the smart grid rollout include the eEnergy Vermont Team, comprising Vermont Transco (the operating company FOR VELCO, the statewide transmission company) ), Burlington Electric Department, Central Vermont Public Service, Green Mountain Power, The Group of Municipal Utilities, Vermont Electric Cooperative, and Washington Electric Cooperative.

The digital upgrade to the state’s aging and largely analog electric system already is under way and the utilities claim that it has begun to pay dividends. For example, Vermont Electric Cooperative— the state’s third largest electric utility, serving consumers in 74 towns in northern Vermont—which already has near-universal smart meter coverage, claims that it cut the outage response time in half after Tropical Storm Irene struck the state one year ago.

The loyal opposition

However, Vermont residents always have been resoundingly Independent—in their politics and in their views on everything from terms limits to state taxes. In fact, Vermont remained a sovereign nation for years after the American Revolution (News - Alert), only joining federal union in 1791as the 14th state.

So it should be no surprise that a local group of activists, called Stop Smart Meters, has circulated a petition calling for a moratorium on the deployment of smart grids. Indeed, the home page of the Stop Smart Meters website urges Vermonters to “become educated on what the repercussions of that development will be for our homes, public places and businesses. There are extremely serious concerns regarding the adverse health effects of microwave radiation, the invasion of privacy and possible compromise of security, as well as questions as to how “green” this technology really is.”

The group states, “Vermonters are a free and sovereign people and we deserve to decide what, if any, technologies are brought to our properties and our towns.”

The activists and other members of the loyal opposition, both in-state and in surrounding New England coalitions, already have won a resounding victory: On May 14, S.214 also known as the Vermont Energy Act of 2012, was passed by the State House and Senate, and on May 18, it was signed by Democratic Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin. It requires an electric utility company to:

  • Provide customers with written notice before installing a wireless smart meter
  • Allow customers to opt-out of having a wireless smart meter at no additional monthly or other charge
  • Allows a customer to require removal of a previously installed wireless smart meter for any reason and at an agreed-upon time without incurring any charges for the removal

In addition to the opt-out, several interesting reports are required, including a joint report to the Commissioner of Health and the Commissioner of Public Service. The report will update a previous report entitled Radio Frequency Radiation and Health; provide a summary of post deployment radio frequency level testing; and provide evidence based on the potential health effects of wireless smart meters. The commissioners are to retain an independent expert to research and write the report which is due on January 15, 2013.

Public interest proponents

However, some groups that also purport to be working in the public interest supported Sanders at the press conference.

Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said "Vermonters want clean energy and the smart grid will help to make that possible. Going door-to-door throughout the state, we've found incredible support for wind, solar and other renewable resources. Smart technology allows those resources to be integrated into the grid while giving consumers the chance to make more responsible energy choices of their own."

Also joining Sanders at the news conference at the Vermont Energy Investment Corp. was Scott Johnstone, executive director of the nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the economic and environmental costs of energy consumption. "VEIC has a 25-year history of supporting and implementing policies, programs, and technologies that will help individuals and businesses reduce their contribution to global climate change," said Johnstone. "Smart grid technology will support consumers in attaining greater use of renewable energy, electric vehicles, conservation, and energy efficiency - all of which can help consumers to reduce their carbon footprint and gain control of their total energy bill."

The smart meters and smart grid infrastructure must be installed this year, under the limitations of the federal funding; thus the press conference was calculated to counteract any further delays—or a moratorium on deployment.



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Edited by Brooke Neuman
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