Public Service Company of New Mexico says its proposed new remote metering system will save customers $20 million over the next two decades and give consumers an ability to monitor their power use online.
Hearings began Monday before the state Public Regulation Commission on PNM’s plan to install the “smart” meters on more than 500,000 homes in New Mexico. The meters transmit power usage data over mobile networks.
The state Attorney General’s Office and others expressed concerns about the cost of the proposal and whether customers would financially benefit.
James Hallinan, spokesman for Attorney General Hector Balderas, said after the PRC hearing that the office supports modernization but it “should not be paid for on the backs of hardworking New Mexicans, especially where it means fewer jobs in our economy. We are concerned about the cost to consumers that may come along with this modernization.”
An estimated 125 jobs will be affected, PNM said.
Twenty residents from around New Mexico also unanimously objected to the proposal at the PRC hearing. Many raised concerns about the health implications of installing wireless technology in homes, which they say adds significant electromagnetic radiation to the environment and can cause ailments such as headaches, insomnia, rashes and cancer.
Customers could decline to have their meters replaced, but they would be charged a one-time fee and about $47 monthly. In other states, opt-out of such systems has been free.
Many of those who spoke against the proposal said the opt-out option would create an unfair economic penalty.
“My motto has always been, if it is not broken, don’t fix it and we have a system that works,” said Santa Fe resident Mary Ellen Underwood. “I have seen nothing that would suggest that this is in our favor.”
In February 2016, PNM proposed installing advanced metering infrastructure, or smart meters, which allow the company to remotely monitor and track energy usage, rather than sending out meter readers.
The company said it would complete the project by 2019 at a cost of $87.2 million and would recover the money in part by laying off meter readers and charging customers $5 a year for five years for the service. The company said it anticipated spending $5 million for severance packages for laid-off workers.
John McPhee a representative for the Santa Fe Alliance for Public Health and Safety, told a PRC hearing officer, “Wireless technology is the most dangerous technology I have seen for the environment and public since the invention of pesticides.”
Many at the hearing discussed how electromagnetic radiation used for smart meters and cellphones can harm people on the cellular level and spoke about personal experiences with electromagnetic sensitivity. They said the meters operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, creating intrusive surveillance of personal behavior and making utility systems more vulnerable to hacking.
Julia Whitfield, a radon inspector with Safe Living Spaces in Santa Fe, said PNM “should be made to prove that it is safe before they put it onto our homes.”
Ray Sandoval, a spokesman for PNM, said, “Smart meters do not produce any negative health impacts.” He said the type of low-level radio frequency has not been linked to health impacts and would only be on for a few minutes a day.
On Monday, Gerald Ortiz, vice president of regulatory affairs for PNM, faced questions from the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, the New Mexico Industrial Energy Consumers, the New Mexico Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy and others on how the new meters might raise utility bills.
Ortiz was asked if the company could promise that any unexpected costs would not fall on customers — such as a need to update the smart meter technology if it quickly becomes obsolete.
He said PNM would have to do a new cost-benefit analysis at that point, but couldn’t say how it might impact customers.
In an earlier hearing, an expert for the Attorney General’s Office found the proposal could cost customers $12 million, not the savings projected by PNM.
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This story has been amended to reflect the following corrections: It originally gave an incorrect name for PNM’s expert witness. The expert’s name is Gerald Ortiz, vice president of regulatory affairs for PNM, not Pat Ortiz, as reported. The story also incorrectly reported that 125 employees would be laid off as a result of the smart meter program. PNM says that while 125 jobs will be affected by the meter installations, some positions will be lost through attrition and workers may have the chance to apply for vacant positions or be retrained for smart meter-specific tasks.