By Chris Collins
Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative was thinking of its employees, its customers and the future when the decision was made to install "smart meters" to record the amount of energy each customer uses, said Steve Schauer, the co-op's member and program services manager.
OTEC will spend about $9 million to install 30,000 meters throughout its service area, which ranges from Elgin to Burns, according to Schauer and Charlie Tracy, systems engineer.
The new automated meter reading system will eliminate the need for OTEC to employ meter-readers. The smart meters send the information to OTEC through the power lines and over the Internet, Schauer said.
They do not use radio frequency to transmit the information. Most customers worried about possible health issues or the security of their information related to the new metering system are relieved when this is explained to them, Schauer said.
And he assures people that information obtained through the meters will not go any farther.
"OTEC doesn't release confidential information unless subpoenaed by law," Schauer said. "That's the way it's always been and the way it will be in the future."
The co-op expects the Two-Way Automated Communications System (TWACS) to pay for itself over about six years through personnel, fuel and other overhead savings as well as improved efficiency.
The power-line transmission system was chosen over the radio frequency system after researching how both would work over the mountainous terrain of Eastern Oregon, Schauer said.
The timing of the installation was scheduled to coincide with planned retirements of some of OTEC's eight meter-readers, he said.
"That was a sincere concern of our board," Tracy said. "How do we keep costs low for our membership and not impact our employees too severely."
In addition to retirements, some meter-readers have been reassigned to other duties.
"We will absorb them as best we can," Schauer said, although there is no guarantee that no jobs will be lost.
The anticipated savings over time that will result from the metering change is part of why OTEC cannot allow its members to choose to retain their analog meter.
"If there were an opt-out option we would have scattered utilities that would have to be read manually," he said.
Based on information from Aclara, the company that supplied the smart meters, and a recent ruling by the Idaho Public Utility Commission (IPUC), the OTEC Board does not believe there is a health risk to its customers from smart meters.
According to Aclara, TWACS technology is used by more than 350 electric utilities serving more than 11 million customers in the United States.
The company's equipment produces low-frequency electromagnetic fields, which are produced by every electrical device or appliances used in homes and businesses, according to a position paper addressing the issue of electromagnetic fields and the TWACS technology produced by the company.
Oregon is one of six states to place a limit on "permissible exposure" to low-frequency electromagnetic fields, according to the paper. Those standards are in regard to high-voltage transmission lines, not home electrical equipment. And there is no U.S. standard for low-frequency electromagnetic field exposure, the company stated.
According to Aclara's comparison of appliances used in the home, the electromagnetic field reading in milligauss (a unit by which magnetic fields are measured) is 60 for a vacuum cleaner, 20 for an electric shaver and 0.3 milligauss for the smart meter.
The Idaho PUC denied two complaints filed by Idaho customers requesting that smart meters be removed from their homes, ruling that they had not "provided sufficient demonstrable, credible, factual evidence to support a finding that the meters present legitimate safety or potentially inappropriate communication concerns," Schauer said.
Though he declined to comment on any specific customer accounts, Schauer said about a dozen meters in Baker County have not yet been changed, all but one(see story below)because of technical reasons rather than the customer objecting.
During the Baker County work project, Schauer said he talked to about 75 people who were initially concerned because of information they had read on the Internet, specifically related to smart meters that use radio frequencies to send information through an antenna.
Work already has been completed in Harney County, and Union County is expected to be finished by Nov. 1. The project next will move to Grant County, which is scheduled for completion next year.
Tracy said the smart meters will position OTEC to better serve its customers in the future as power rates begin to increase.
The precise information provided by the new system will allow OTEC to help its members better manage their power usage and save money, especially if time-of-day billing is required.
A voluntary effort of consumers to change the time of day they use appliances, such as a dishwasher, for example, would help the cooperative buy power at a cheaper off-peak rate and deliver the savings to customers, Tracy said.
More information about smart meters is available at the OTEC website: www.otecc.com/AutomatedMeterReading.aspx.