The Associated Press January 5, 2012, 9:51AM ET

Debate heats up in Ill. town over 'smart-meters'

A Chicago suburb on Wednesday became one of the first communities in Illinois to begin installing "smart meter" grid technology for all its electricity consumers -- even as opponents with privacy and health concerns sought a court order halting the $22 million project.

Crews in Naperville, a city of 145,000 west of Chicago, started fitting the wireless devices that broadcast electricity usage directly to utilities at homes and businesses on Wednesday. It is expected to take months to install all 57,000 devices.

Naperville officials say the meters will modernize an antiquated electricity-delivery system, including by allowing utilities to adjust immediately to sudden losses or surges in power. They also will render traditional meter readers who walk from house to house obsolete.

A city spokeswoman, Nadja Lalvani, said such upgraded grids will eventually revolutionize the energy sector -- "like the Internet has changed how we shop and look for music."

But opponents fear the constant stream of real-time data will enable remote operators to monitor consumer behavior like never before, raising privacy concerns.

A U.S. District Court in Chicago assigned a judge this week to hear a request from Naperville Smart Meter Awareness -- the group leading the opposition -- for an order stopping the project. No hearing date has been set.

"It's become clear our city officials are no longer acting in the public's best interest," the group's president, Kim Bendis, said last week after requesting the injunction. "They've failed to stop the project in the face of public outcry."

The city will fight the request and didn't foresee any slowdown in the project, Lalvani said Wednesday.

"We remain on track, on time and on budget," she said.

Naperville owns and operates its own utility, giving the city more say than other communities about how to run its electricity grid and allowing it to embrace the technology sooner than others, she added.

Several billion dollars in federal stimulus money was set aside for power-grid modernization and has helped kick-start several such projects, including Naperville's. Federal money is footing half its cost.

In its filing, Naperville Smart Meter Awareness said there were legitimate health issues, including that the devices rely on radio frequencies -- similar to ones used by cell phones -- that they contend may pose health risks.

It also says the implications on privacy haven't been fully thought through.

"The potential exists to collect, store and share private consumer information without customer consent or control," including what appliances are used most often and when residents are home or away, the groups said.

Naperville officials have sought to reassure residents.

The city posted a March study from the Edison Electric Institute on its website, for instance, that concluded radio-frequency exposure from smart meters would be 125 to 1,250 times less than from a cell phone.

"We wouldn't purposefully install meters that would harm ourselves and other residents," Lalvani said. "We feel strongly there is no health risk."


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