By Chris Collins
The conflict between a Baker City man and Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative regarding installation of a so-called smart meter at his home at Third Street and Court Avenue has come to a head.
Facing an ultimatum from OTEC, Ron Edge has decided to try to run his home at 2139 Court Ave. without the benefit of electricity supplied by the cooperative.
He'll rely on lighting provided by candles and matches, and he's been looking into buying a natural-gas generator to provide power to his home, which is heated by two stoves powered by natural gas, but whose fans run on electricity. He also has a gas cooking range.
At issue is OTEC's insistence that all of its customers convert from analog meters to the smart meter to monitor their power consumption.
But based on his research, Edge believes the Smart Meters pose a health hazard that he does not want to be exposed to.
Jim Horan, OTEC's government affairs and communications specialist, said OTEC has "bent over backward" to work with Edge on the issue and noted that Edge did not respond to a letter mailed to his home on Oct. 12.
"He's waited until the 11th hour," Horan said. "And now we're prepared to take action (Friday)."
Edge, a 67-year-old decorated disabled Vietnam War veteran, says OTEC's timing seems harsh.
"With the holidays and winter coming on - merry Christmas," he says.
Edge and his wife, Jan, have another home in Lakeview where their daughter, Jury, and her family live also. Jan divides her time between the two homes. Ron retired from Ash Grove Cement Co. near Durkee about six years ago after working for the company for 23 years as a purchasing agent.
He says the fact that he spends the majority of his time living alone at the Baker City home he's owned for 18 years makes it easier for him to have the power disconnected.
"I don't feel OTEC has the best interest of its customers in mind, so I'm just gonna sever ties with them," Edge said Thursday.
In a letter to Edge dated Oct. 30, Steve Schauer, OTEC's director of member and program services, wrote that the co-op would agree to a compromise that was discussed with Edge earlier last month - to place the new meter on a power pole outside the fence of his home.
Edge said in September that he would research the issue and consider that option if he believed installing the meter farther from his house would help mitigate the possible health hazards.
"You would need to pay the actual cost of this project, which is estimated at $1,000," Schauer wrote in his most recent letter to Edge.
Schauer said OTEC would accept a down payment of $400 and interest-free payments for the next 11 months to cover the cost.
OTEC representatives were scheduled to be at Edge's home today to hear his final decision on the matter.
Edge said he thought moving the meter from the side of his house might alleviate his concerns about possible health issues attributed to smart meters, such as headaches, nausea and heart problems. After conducting more research he no longer believes that's true.
"To my dismay, I found out it doesn't matter where the smart meter is, if you're on the system you'll be impacted," Edge said. "It's disappointing that OTEC would try to pacify me with something they should have known better about."
In his Oct. 30 letter to Edge, Schauer wrote that if Edge declines to have the smart meter installed on the power pole, "we will, at that time, either remove our existing meter effectively stopping electric service or replace that meter with a TWACS (Smart) meter," Schauer said.
TWACS is the acronym for Two-Way Automated Communications System, which brings information about a customer's power usage from each point of service to the OTEC offices "almost instantly" improving service and saving money for OTEC and its customers, according to the cooperative.
Schauer advised Edge, if he should choose to go off the grid, "to make arrangements for perishable items or stand-alone power generation."
Schauer says the co-op is in "complete disagreement" with Edge's contention that smart meters could harm its customers.
"We recognize people feel there is a concern," Schauer said. "And we're willing to make concessions regarding their concerns," such as moving the meter away from their homes.
Edge remains hopeful that some compromise might be worked out. He said he put in a call to OTEC's engineering department Thursday in an effort to get information that would help him take a baseline reading of the electromagnetic fields in his home before and after installation of a smart meter. He would then make modifications to his home and compare the effectiveness of those modifications.
"I've been looking at all kinds of things," Edge said. "There are different options. I want to find a way to circumvent the adverse effects of smart meters on my house."
In a September interview with Schauer and Charlie Tracy, OTEC systems engineer, the two men said OTEC will spend about $9 million to install 30,000 meters throughout its service area, which ranges from Elgin to Burns.
Meters have already been installed throughout OTEC's service area in Baker County, with a few exceptions, including Edge's house.
In all cases except Edge's house, though, the reason for the delay is technical rather than an objection by the customer.
The smart meters, which will eliminate the need for meter readers, send customer information to OTEC through the power lines and over the Internet, Schauer said.
They do not use radio signals to transmit the information. Most customers worried about possible health issues or the security of their information related to the new metering system usually are relieved when the difference is explained to them, Schauer said.
And he points to information from Aclara, the company that supplied the smart meters, regarding the amount of low-frequency electromagnetic fields produced by the new meters.
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 two-way automated communications system.
But Edge says his investigation into the matter has not eased his concerns. In fact, he points to information gleaned from the Internet, including doctor's opinions that claim the use of power lines and Internet to transmit information creates "dirty electricity."
"It goes into your house and makes your house, as I understand it, act as an antenna," Edge said, increasing - not lessening - exposure to electromagnetic fields.
Schauer said in September that he'd only heard from about 75 customers who were concerned about the smart meters and most of them no longer objected to installation of the new meters once they learned they use existing power lines and not radio signals.
But Edge thinks that's misleading. He says he's talked to several people who are concerned and most weren't even aware that the new meters had been installed on their homes.
"They're frustrated and irritated that it was forced on them," Edge says.
And this is not just a local issue, he adds, noting that PGandE has offered an opt-out program for its customers in other regions of the country who were concerned about health hazards that they believe could be linked to smart meters.
Edge says his electric bill averages about $46 per month and he's surprised at the lengths the co-op is going to over what he calls a "piddling amount."
OTEC maintains on the other hand that it's in the best interest of all of its customers not to allow any to opt-out of the Smart Meter system, which is expected to pay for itself over about six years through personnel, fuel and other overhead savings as well as improved efficiency and better service to its customers.
The OTEC Board considered the issue again recently and agreed to maintain its course, Horan said.
"The board decided not to allow an opt-out," he said. "The system works best when everybody's on it."