The Decatur City Council approved a Decatur Utilities pilot program for "smart meters," but not without reservations.
"My question was whether we could regulate this in the future, and the answer was 'yes,' " Councilman Charles Kirby said.
The council unanimously approved a $170,000 Decatur Utilities pilot program that will include the installation of 250 electric meters, 50 water meters and 50 gas meters. The meters will provide real-time data to DU.
Kirby said he might propose restrictions on DU's use of the data.
Councilman Chuck Ard also raised concerns, but he said the advanced meters will benefit customers.
"The issue to me was whether somebody could hack into the system," Ard said. "It's kind of silly that people have to come out and read meters and turn the power on or off."
The meters allow DU to shut down or start power remotely.
Decatur resident Nick Davis sent emails opposing the pilot program to council members. He said regulations should be imposed on the use of information collected by DU, but his main concern involved the health of customers.
"It's an unnecessary risk for Decatur to take," Davis said. "Other cities can take those risks if they are proven safe. I think it's a mistake for us to be the guinea pigs on this. It's going to expose the city to liability and citizens to health and fire risks."
The meters will communicate real-time usage data to DU with radio-frequency signals. Cellphone modems will collect the data and send it to DU.
In Oregon , Portland General Electric recalled 70,000 of the devices because of a fire risk.
"In addition to the safety concerns, there are privacy concerns from police and from hackers," Davis said.
A California law required release of police inquiries into smart-meter data. In San Diego last year, energy-use records of thousands of customers were released to law enforcement through subpoenas, most in drug cases.
A 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service raised privacy concerns.
"The data must also be transmitted to electric utilities -- and possibly to third parties outside of the smart grid -- subjecting it to potential interception or theft as it travels over communications networks and is stored in a variety of physical locations," the report said.
Ard said he opposed placing regulations on DU's use of the data it receives from the smart meters.
"I don't see a value to regulation," Ard said. "This is just a test. This is just 250 households. It's just to give them an idea of whether they want to push it."
DU's interest in smart meters is prompted by the way the Tennessee Valley Authority bills DU for electricity. The authority already charges DU slightly more for peak power -- such as summer afternoons and winter mornings -- and the TVA plans to increase the gap between peak and off-peak power costs in the future.
At normal demand levels, TVA can use relatively inexpensive electricity generation, such as nuclear and coal. When air conditioners are on, however, it is forced to purchase power at a premium on the open market or fire up its natural gas generators.
DU customers have no financial incentive to avoid peak demand times because DU, which only knows a customer's monthly usage as collected by meter readers, cannot bill residential customers based on the time of day they used electricity.
Smart meters will give DU the ability to implement time-of-use billing, charging customers more for power used at times of peak demand.
Also on Monday, the council unanimously approved a re-zone of land at Modaus Road Southwest and Shady Grove Lane . Decatur City Schools plans to relocate Austin High to the site.
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