Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

We don't object to Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative replacing its customers' analog power meters with digital "smart" meters.

But neither are we convinced that OTEC, the Baker City-based cooperative that has about 30,000 customers in Baker, Union, Grant and Harney counties, couldn't design a feasible system by which people could, probably for a fee, choose to keep their old meter.

The controversy over smart meters has grown exponentially over the past couple years as tens of millions of dollars in grants from the 2009 federal stimulus bill have enticed utilities to install hundreds of thousands of the devices nationwide.

(OTEC didn't use any public dollars to put in its smart meters.)

Smart meters, unlike the analog type, don't need to be read by an employee. The meters can also monitor a home's or business' electricity usage almost constantly.

The benefit, according to OTEC and other utilities, is that customers can learn when they're using the most power. This can be especially useful for people who pay higher rates for electricity at certain times of the day (OTEC doesn't use a variable-rate system now, but it might in the future).

What's probably the most common complaint about smart meters isn't applicable locally.

Some residents contend that radio signal radiation from smart meters can cause a variety of ailments, including headaches, nausea and even heart problems.

OTEC's smart meters, though, don't send data via radio signals. Instead, they transmit information over existing power lines.

Still and all, the concerns expressed by people such as Ron Edge of Baker City, who has refused to allow OTEC to install a smart meter at his home, shouldn't be considered trivial.

And although we understand OTEC's reluctance to employ meter readers who haven't many meters to read - very few people have, like Edge, objected to the change - the cooperative intends to shift some meter readers who aren't retiring to other jobs.

Surely those employees could include a relative handful of meter readings in their workload.

And if doing so adds to OTEC's payroll costs, the cooperative could impose a reasonable surcharge to the bills of customers who don't want a smart meter.

Other utilities that offer such an "opt-out" clause have done so.