SPECIAL REPORT: The facts about smart meters

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Get ready for a new way to keep track of energy.

"We're upgrading our electric meter technology across the state to provide even better service for our customers," said Dennis McKee with Consumers Energy.

Before utilities had to rely on meter readers to punch in numbers once a month, but soon most homes in mid-Michigan will have a smart meter reporting that information remotely.

"Smart meters are advanced digital meters which record energy data or water data and automatically transmit it to the utility," said Kellee Christensen with BWL. "They monitor it more often than a monthly once read."

Sending daily messages to the company.

"What it'll show is just on an hourly basis how much energy they use," said Christensen.

"No personal information," said McKee. "We can't tell how our customers are using the electricity. Only they can."

Here's how it works-
According to Consumers Energy, the smart meter has a base plate that connects the meter socket to your home.
On top of that is the metrology, which has sensors that measure your energy usage.
Next the communication module sends that data to Consumers through a cellphone tower.
The display then shows how much electricity you're using.
FInally, the cover protects the smart meter.

"Consumers Energy is the first one in the United States to utilize the cellular infrastructure for text type messages to be sent from the meters to Consumers Energy once per day," said McKee. "With the energy use information of our customers."

But some customers are worried that smart meters aren't just tracking usage, they're tracking you.

"As far as we're concerned, the data relates to our home and our usage," said Stephen Willis. "It shouldn't be distributed to any other sources."

He and his wife want nothing to do with the new technology.

"People can hack into different networks and access information," said Willis. "So if they're capable of doing that, they're also capable of determining where you live and when you may not be home because your usage is down."

And there aren't any legal restrictions when it comes to sharing that information.

"It can sell this information. It can use this information like Google does to provide advertisers for markets," said Adam Candeub, the Director of Intellectual Property Communications and Information at MSU. "This can be viewed as an invasion of people's privacy."

Privacy utilities say they take very seriously.

"We do not share energy usage data for customers," said Christensen.

"The information that is sent from the meter is sent in an encrypted and encoded form, so it's completely private," said McKee.

But that's not all the Willis' are concerned about.

"I'm really worried about my personal safety," said Sheri Willis. "My health and the safety of my home."

She was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2001 and since had three surgeries and two radiation treatments.

"I don't want to have these EMF pulses going through my home causing me to have more radiation exposure, which could cause me to have the cancer," she said.

But utilities say the radio frequencies used to transmit data aren't dangerous.

"The technology that we use, it's very safe, it's very passive," said McKee.

"It's lower than like a baby monitor and definitely lower than a cell phone," said Christensen. "It's very intermittent, so it's not like a constant stream."

And they're following all the federal guidelines to get smart meters to all their customers in the next few years.

"That's going to help us control costs and help become a more efficient company," said McKee.

Money that could go back into your pocket.

"It improves our accuracy for both reading the meters, and it improves our customer service because we will have a lot more information to give the customer about their usage," said Christensen.

So you'll have the power to see how much you use and when you use it.

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