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BPU approves smart meters, opt out solution

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By Tris DeRoma

Residents that don’t want a smart meter hooked to their home may soon have the option of not getting one if the Los Alamos County Council approves a decision made by the Board of Public Utilities Tuesday.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board approved a smart meter contractor and an opt-out solution for residents who don’t want the contractor to install one. 

The board approved a $6.5 million contract for Ferguson Incorporated to switch out 8,000 existing electric meters and attach communication modules to 14,000 gas and water meters. 

During a BPU hearing in September, some residents complained that the data the meters collected and stored about their energy usage could be used by criminals to determine when they are home, when they’re not, and how many people are living in the house. 

Criminals and others could get the information through the Inspection of Public Records Act, since the utilities are publicly owned. 

Los Alamos is one of three counties in the state that owns its public utilities. 

The decision of the contract was then tabled. Tuesday, Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities officials came back with a provision where the DPU would have to give residents a clear and well-publicized option to opt out of getting a smart meter. 

DPU Deputy Manger Robert Westervelt told the BPU Tuesday the only way to assuage concerns was to simply not collect the data.

“If a citizen has those privacy concerns, if we offered them the option of opting out of having a smart meter installed at their home… simplest terms is we don’t collect the data, so even if there is an (Information of Public Records Act) request, we don’t have any data that is available to release,” Westervelt said. “The citizens’ privacy issues are then dealt with in that manner.”

While meter information has always been collectable through IPRA, smart meter technology will allow for more accurate information about customer use to be sent to an off-site database every 15 minutes. 

DPU officials have said smart meter technology will make monitoring energy and utility use easier for customers and the department. 

Resident Cornell Wright approved of the board’s decision. 

“Although the opt out is not in the long run an ideal solution, it’s a very reasonable thing to do under these circumstances,” Wright said. 

Los Alamos County Councilor Antonio Maggiore, speaking as a resident, asked the BPU and the DPU for assurances that the option to install and remove the meters at the request of residents will not have a negative financial impact on the renter community through rent hikes or other means. 

Westervelt assured Maggiore and others that the DPU would pay the costs of resident refusal and installation. 

If the opt-outs started to become an economic burden, then a provision in the contract would allow the DPU to cancel the project, Westerveld said.

“I think we can absorb a 25-percent opt out, although I don’t expect it to get anywhere near that,” Westervelt told the board. 

Westervelt also said that if the board went ahead and approved the contract, then the DPU would go back and formulate an opt-out policy the BPU could approve later, before Ferguson Incorporated start work on the project, which may start as soon as the spring. 

BPU voted 4-1 in favor of the contract. BPU member Stephen McLin was the the dissenting vote. 

“I’m encouraged by the opt-out option,” McLin said. “That’s a positive step in my mind. I’m still a little reluctant to support the project without seeing the (opt-out option) in writing, however.” 

The BPU’s approval of the contract and the creation of an opt-out option for residents now awaits final approval by Los Alamos County Council.