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December 20, 2014

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Utilities:

Smart meters 101: Five things you need to know

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Steve Marcus

Bennie Palmore, a journeyman metering electrician, conducts communication tests on smart meters at the NV Energy meter shop Tuesday, March 6, 2012. NV Energy plans to install 1.3 million smart meters as part of an electrical grid modernization.

NV Energy’s smart meters have been installed at 750,000 residences over the past 18 months, and the utility says it has another 150,000 to go. The devices, which can be read remotely, are supposed to save money, allow customers to better monitor their energy usage and allow the utility to spot outages before customers call. What’s not to love? Well, some conspiracy-minded Nevadans see a threat to health and privacy.

Here’s what you need to know.

    • What is a smart meter, and why do we have them?

      Smart meters are digital devices that measure electricity usage in homes and business and wirelessly transmit that information to the utility for billing.

      About 50 million smart meters have been installed in the United States over the past decade, but they’ve only recently arrived in Nevada.

      As part of President Barack Obama’s push to update the country’s electricity grid, NV Energy got a matching grant of $139 million through the federal stimulus. The utility began installing them in September 2010, after the Nevada Public Utilities Commission deemed them safe, secure, private and accurate.

    • Will this wireless beaming make me sick?

      No. The radio frequencies emitted by the smart meters are 15,000 times lower than the limit set by the Federal Communications Commission, said Gary Smith, NV Energy’s director of the smart meter program.

      The intensity of the radio frequency is 5,000 times less than a cellphone, 3,200 less than a cordless phone in a home and 26 times less than a wireless router in your home.

    • Are they accurate?

      The meters are tested by the manufacturer, by NV Energy and the UNR, through a contract with the utility. Through 2011, when 500,000 meters were installed, there were 60 requests to have meters tested. NV Energy determined all 60 had been accurate, Smith said.

    • Is my information safe?

      No Social Security information, driver’s license numbers, addresses, birth dates or other identifying information is transmitted from the smart meter. Instead, an encrypted code is used to identify the house and its usage, Smith said.

      Users can then log in to the secure web portal, where they use a password they create.

      The PUC also said NV Energy would use an encrypted radio frequency and “best-in-industry” technology.

    • Can NV Energy shut off my air conditioner via the smart meter??

      No. Smith said the company can’t determine individual appliance usage, only overall household usage.

    • What will it cost me?

      That’s yet to be determined. The feds helped with the $139 million grant, matched by $139 million from the company. Those costs are likely to be passed onto ratepayers at the company’s next general rate case in the next few years.

      But the savings should be passed on, as well. NV Energy expects there to be an annual savings of $35 million, since it won’t need to have meter readers walking around to houses every month.

    • What if I still don’t want a smart meter on my house?

      Faced with vehement opposition, the Nevada Public Utilities Commission decided to allow customers to opt out of the smart meter program. Those customers will be able to switch to a digital meter that is read by an NV Energy worker. But it will cost those who want to stay off the grid. How much is still to be determined. The company will bring back estimated costs within 60 days.

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