Utility regulators are pushing utilities to adopt this kind of automated meter technology. But the American Civil Liberties Union and others warn it potentially threatens privacy and could pose health risks because of the radio signals used to transmit the information.

Share story

YAKIMA — Every six hours, James Dean’s office gets a report on how much water Yakima residents and businesses are using.

As Yakima’s utility-services manager, Dean gets the data from thousands of “smart” water meters that transmit readings to a central computer where utility workers can monitor usage for billing as well as spotting leaks in the system.

“The only meters we have to go out and read are the ones we have issues with,” Dean said of the system the city has been using since 2013.

State utility regulators are pushing other utilities, including electricity providers, to adopt this kind of automated meter technology. But the American Civil Liberties Union and others warn it potentially threatens privacy and could possibly pose health risks because of the radio signals used to transmit the information.

Utilities say the privacy concerns are unwarranted, but the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission says customers can choose not to have the advanced meters hooked up to their homes or businesses.

Federal legislation in recent years has authorized improvements to the nation’s electrical-power system, including encouraging utility companies to install advanced metering technology.

In addition to allowing consumption to be measured remotely, the meters allow power to be remotely switched on or off, said Tom Gauntt, spokesman for Pacific Power.

Pacific Power is installing fully advanced meters in Oregon and California, but hasn’t not done so yet in Washington. Instead, in Washington many of its meters only transmit data to a truck-mounted receiver, allowing a meter reader to drive through a neighborhood to get data rather than have to read each individual meter.

The more sophisticated meters have the advantage of allowing the utility to more accurately map power outages, Gauntt said.

ACLU cautions Seattle

The meters have their critics. In 2017, the ACLU of Washington urged the Seattle City Council to consider requiring privacy protections before allowing the devices to be installed.

The meters, the ACLU argued, collect data in such ways that can reveal whether someone is home, and to some extent what they are doing in their home based on energy usage. And that data can be sold for marketing purposes, the ACLU and others warned.

“The potential surveillance capabilities … make clear and binding guidelines essential,” ACLU Technology and Liberty Project Director Shankar Narayan wrote to the Seattle council. “In considering what safeguards might be appropriate, the City Council must consider the outer envelope of this (or any other) technology’s capabilities and ensure third-party verification of those capabilities, rather than rely on the assurances of the very vendors that stand to benefit from potential sales of Seattleites’ data.”

Narayan said in a phone interview Friday that the ability to analyze data from the meter has improved to the point where it can not only show what appliance is operating, but, in the case of a TV, what movie is being watched.

Other anti-smart-meter groups claim the devices pose health risks because the wireless technology used to transmit data creates radio waves that may cause cancer or other illnesses.

Pacific Power says the data the meters transmit is protected and that the radio transmitters generate less electromagnetic radiation than a cellphone.

While the utility commission recognized the benefits of modernizing the grids, it said customers should have the option of not having smart meters if they have concerns about it. It also recommended that any fees associated with opting out of a smart-meter be directly related to the costs, such as having someone read the meter on a regular basis, and not be used as a way to force customers to accept the new meters.

Dean said the meters record only how much water flows through it on an hourly basis. He said the reading, while more frequent, does not collect any more data than a meter reader walking on the property would collect from a meter.

Yakima water users can log in and see their water usage, allowing them to double-check their bills or alert them to plumbing problems if there’s an unexplained spike in usage, Dean said.

He said the city has not had any requests from people to opt out of the advanced meters, nor does the city provide that option.

Gauntt said Pacific Power is seeing about less than 1 percent of its Oregon customers asking to remain with older meters rather than go with advanced technology.

Gauntt said Pacific Power does not have any plans now to upgrade its meters in Washington state.