Opponents of 'smart' meters worry about Big Brother in Fountain

By: matt steiner matt.steiner@gazette.com
September 4, 2013 Updated: September 5, 2013 at 8:24 am

Fears about government surveillance of electric usage prompted Fountain residents to force a resolution onto November's election ballot to end the use of "smart meters" in the southern El Paso County town.

At least 670 signatures were needed on a petition that went before the Fountain City Council on Aug. 27. The quota was met and the council voted unanimously to approve the ballot question for the Nov. 5 election.

If voters reverse the smart meter project that Fountain Utilities began in the summer of 2010, customers could find themselves paying out about $5.43 million, utilities spokeswoman Erin Garcia said.

That cost would cover replacing and reprogramming already installed meters, hiring a new crew of meter readers and returning $2.1 million in federal stimulus money given to the city in 2009 to implement its energy management initiative.

According to Garcia, customers will have at least a 7 percent increase in electric rates if the resolution passes.

"That's our initial evaluation of what the immediate cost impacts would be," she said. "And that's a very conservative baseline."

The Fountain Utilities Department completed about 75 percent of the meter installations by the end of August and expects to have all 16,500 customers outfitted with smart meters by the end of September.

The smart meters used in Fountain are replacing older meters that would transmit a radio signal every 15 minutes that were read monthly by a meter reader driving past each residence. Meter readers are not needed with the new system because the smart meters transmit a usage report directly to the utilities office once every 24 hours, Garcia said.

Customers are able to access their daily report online and assess their own usage based on time of day and which appliances and areas of their home are using the most power.

Opponents of smart meters say this type of monitoring is violation of their personal privacy. The Fountain Valley Citizens for Smart Meter Awareness, which distributed the petition, and the Colorado Citizens Smart Meter Awareness also fear that smart meters can be used to control energy usage for customers or be used to tailor rates to on- and off-peak times.

"This is Big Brother!" Ken Lippincott of the Fountain Valley organization told The Gazette in 2012.

According to Garcia, residential customers will not be subject to rates based on usage. Commercial customers, however, are using that type of plan "because it makes sense for their needs," she said.

Other municipalities that use smart meters have implemented "voluntary" programs that allow residential customers to receive incentives to allow utilities companies to control their usage during peak periods. But Fountain does not have any need for that at this time, Garcia said.

"It's not a legitimate concern," Garcia said. "That is in no way, shape or form part of our plan."

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