Vermont's electricity utilities say they'll be working during the next year to roll out new "smart meters" -- and digital networks to support them -- that will help them more closely monitor their power distribution networks and help customers save money.
But new questions are being raised about privacy, security and possible health impacts from radio waves emitted, particularly by the wireless systems Vermont's two major utilities intend to use.
And the questions have prompted the state Public Service Board to entertain a request from a new activist group that it be admitted as a formal party in the final stages of the board's review of the new technology.
Olga Julinska of Wells, one of the leaders of the new group StopsMeters, said the meters deserve more public scrutiny than they've received so far.
"This is an incredibly large infrastructure development, maybe the biggest of our generation," she said of the utilities' plans to install the new meters in every customer's home and business. "We feel the way this has been handled is not right. No one even knows about this."
The Public Service Board opened a formal review of smart meter technology in 2007 and it has allowed some access to the process for members of the public who've been paying attention, including a public hearing in September.
Julinska and her allies believe the issue deserves more attention than it has received.
A key question is how the meters, which will transmit real-time information about customers' power usage back to the utilities, will transmit that data -- over a hard-wired or wireless network.
Vermont's two largest power companies, Central Vermont Public Service Corp. and Green Mountain Power Corp., have opted for the wireless technology, saying it can carry more data and move it faster than a hard-wired system.
This worries some of the activists, among them Ben Hauben of Manchester. Hauben said he formerly lived near a power substation and that its electromagnetic field made him ill and has left him hyper-sensitive to such exposures now.
Ray Pealer of Marshfield pointed to a study of exposure to cell phones, released earlier this year by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, that found cell phone exposure "possibly carcinogenic."
Utility officials say the radio frequency radiation emitted by smart meters is much less powerful than that of cellular telephones. And William Irwin, head of radiological health for the Vermont Health Department, said all such devices are built with large safety margins incorporated into their design.
But Irwin also said that exposure to cell phones is a top concern for researchers worldwide in the field of radiological health. Until more is known, he urged limiting exposure to cell phone signals, especially for children.
On smart meters, Irwin said, "Like with cell phones, this is new. It is becoming ubiquitous. It's important for any source of exposure to phenomena like this (radio frequency radiation) that human knowledge is not perfect. We may learn something in the future that will improve our understanding of it."
Utility officials have a ready answer for someone concerned about the radio frequency radiation emitted by smart meters: Opt out, continue to rely on your existing meter and pay an extra $10 a month for a meter reader to come and check it.
Hauben, CEO of Manchester Designer Outlets, said that doesn't settle the issue for him. His mall is a collection of upscale stores that advertise themselves as containing "green building" features such as floors that do no emit volatile organic compounds. He said his tenants have separate electricity meters, and that as he visits them or travels elsewhere, he likely would be exposed to radio frequency radiation emitted by wireless smart meters.
"Opting out is really not a solution as far as I'm concerned," Hauben said.
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Vermont chapter, said his group is urging the Public Service Board to set up the system to allow people to "opt in" to having smart meters, with the opportunity to change their minds every two years.
The main concern for Gilbert's group is privacy. Smart meters can track times of use for individual appliances in the home, for instance turning on an electric clothes dryer in the middle of the night, when power is cheap. Gilbert said that opens the door to law enforcement getting the data and more closely tracking what goes on in residents' homes.
"It is critically important that law enforcement not be able to obtain Vermonters' smart meter data without a warrant," Gilbert said, adding that customers whose usage data are being subpoenaed should be notified and given an opportunity to try to block the subpoena.