LANSING, Mich. (Lansing State Journal) - The futuristic-looking device in John Holeton's hand chattered noisily as he waved it over people's smartphones, generating gasps from the growing crowd gathered at the Anderson House Office Building in downtown Lansing.
The device, a high-frequency analyzer, buzzed to indicate pulsed radiation coming from the phones, Holeton, a retired industrial electrician from Shelby Township and part of a group called Warriors for American Revolution, told the crowd.
He said the high-tech "smart meters" increasingly used by power companies to measure energy usage and broadcast that information to utilities also emit radiation that could be unhealthy. And that's why he and dozens of other residents crowded two committee rooms Tuesday night to slam the smart meters as a health and privacy risk and to ask lawmakers to intervene.
"No one is representing us and protecting us, and that's why everyone's here," Holeton, 64, said before the start of a state House Oversight Committee hearing on the issue.
Committee Chairman Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills convened Tuesday's hearing to gather public testimony on the issue, though there is no bill before the committee. A parade of residents from across the state took the microphone to tell lawmakers stories of health problems they believe were caused by the meters.
McMillin drew applause from the crowd when he grilled representatives of both DTE Energy and Consumers Energy over whether the new meters were necessary.
Noting that some states had banned the smart meters, McMillin told a DTE representative, "somehow, the sky isn't falling for them. It just seems like this is possible."
Numerous utilities, including the Lansing Board of Water & Light, are turning more and more to smart meters as a way to reduce costs because they lessen the need for meter readers and as a way to generate more accurate bills for customers. Utility officials also said the new meters would allow them to remotely turn power off or on to more quickly respond to customers' needs.
This week, the Lansing BWL is wrapping up installation of 140 smart meters in East Lansing's Bailey neighborhood. If the city-owned utility deems the $200,000 pilot program successful, they'll install them for all customers over the next three years.
But the meters, which emit radio frequency (RF) fields as they send information on energy usage to utility companies, have been controversial. Some residents are concerned about health risks associated with RF fields, about having private information transmitted through the air, and about the meters interfering with home electronics or healthcare devices.
The Michigan Public Service Commission requires utilities to allow customers to opt out of the smart meters, though the utilities can charge customers an up-front and a monthly fee to not have the new technology.
The American Cancer Society says RF radiation is "a possible carcinogen," but "it isn't clear what risk, if any there might be from living in a home with a smart meter." It says people get more RF exposure from cell phones than smart meters.
Mike Byrne, legislative liaison for the MPSC, told the committee the MPSC had found the health risk to be "insignificant," and said the commission had no authority to decide the technology utility companies want to use.
"Really you could," he told Byrne. "If it was unsafe and you guys thought it was unsafe, you would intervene, right?"
"We could try," Byrne said. "There's nothing explicitly in state law that allows that."
Bob Sitkauskas, general manager of DTE's Advanced Metering Infrastructure program, told the committee the new meters were also necessary because the old analogue meters are no longer manufactured, a point repeated later in the hearing by Byrne. As part of scheduled equipment upgrades, the utilities will install new digital meters even for those who opt out and pay the fee, but officials said those customers would receive digital meters that don't broadcast usage data.
But McMillin drew more applause when he told the utilities "we wouldn't be having this" if utilities weren't a monopoly.
"If you had competitors," McMillin told representatives from Consumers Energy, "one of them might offer the analogue meter."
And that was one of the biggest complaints from those who drove in for the hearing, that the meters were being forced upon them.
"Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is being destroyed," Mike Mullen, a 58-year-old Harrison Township resident, said before the hearing.