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PUC approves writing rules for smart meter opt-out

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EL PASO, Texas (AP) — The Public Utility Commission has decided to develop a set of rules so consumers can opt out of the smart meters installed in millions of Texas homes and businesses.

Consumers have opposed the new meters, citing possible health hazards and privacy concerns. Some have installed steel cages around their analog meters to prevent utility workers from replacing them with the new digital units and one Houston woman held a gun to impede a utility worker from replacing her meter.

PUC spokesman Terry Hadley said Friday that an opt-out would leave already-installed smart meters in place but disable the devices' radio frequency capabilities.

A draft of the new rules will be written and submitted for public comment, Hadley said. After that, the PUC will vote again on whether to adopt them, which means there's still a chance the opt-out will fail. But, he said, "at this point the Commission is leaning toward an opt-out."

It will take several months until the new proposal is drafted and voted, Hadley said.

Smart meters allow for remote metering via radio frequency and are make the billing process cheaper since there is no need to send utility workers to read them. The meters also provide real-time information on energy consumption and help utilities prevent grid overloads during peak times. They also report to the utility when there is a power outage, making reconnection faster.

In websites and meetings organized by PUC, those against smart meters have spoken of possible government snooping and violations of the Fourth Amendment —unreasonable search and seizure — as well as the chance that hackers could access people's information from the meters.

On a petition template that's posted on www.bantexassmartmeters.com , meters are called "surveillance devices" because they record the household occupants' activities and can be used to "gain a highly invasive and detailed view" of their lives. Smart meters record consumption in 15-minute intervals.

Health hazards from the radio frequencies emitted by the meters have also been cited. The Public Utilities Commission says the meters have a lower impact than cellphones and microwave ovens and are well within Federal Communications Commission's standards for radio frequency devices.

It's likely that consumers who opt out will have to pay to have their meters read. As part of the rule-writing process, the Commission will gather information on how much it costs to send employees to read the meters and what disabling the radio frequency device would cost.

Users in California and Nevada pay between $75 and $107 to have the devices replaced along with monthly fees ranging from $8 to $10 to have the meters read. Meanwhile, Vermont legislators decided in May that utilities cannot charge users that opt out.

About 93 percent of the nearly 7 million smart meters in Texas' competitive markets for electricity, mainly in Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, have been deployed, Hadley said.

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