By KELLEY SHANNON Austin Bureau email@example.com
Published: 20 March 2013 10:17 PM
AUSTIN — Health and privacy worries about advanced electric meters surfaced in House debate Wednesday, but most lawmakers rejected impassioned arguments that “smart meters” pose a danger.
“It’s important to a lot of people that have received meters that they didn’t want,” said the libertarian-leaning Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview. “We don’t know the long-term health effects of these meters.”
The House overwhelmingly rejected Simpson’s amendment to Public Utility Commission sunset legislation, but only after heated debate and raised voices. House members gave preliminary approval to the overall sunset bill, 139-6, to keep the commission operating for 10 more years.
Much of the debate centered on an emergency cease-and-desist power, which watchdog groups say is an important consumer protection tool, and the advanced meters. The Legislature encouraged the devices several years ago. They are being installed by some utilities across Texas.
A smart meter records electricity consumption in time intervals, typically every 15 minutes, and sends the information to the electric utility. Supporters say they allow consumers to more accurately track electricity usage. The meters can also report a power outage.
“I support better technology,” Simpson said. But he contended that consumers should be able to choose it rather than be required to have it.
Under his proposal, Texans could refuse installation of a smart meter or have one that’s already present removed and replaced with a conventional meter.
Rep. Byron Cook, the Corsicana Republican who is author of the sunset bill, opposed Simpson’s amendment. He repeatedly pointed out that the Public Utility Commission is developing rules so consumers can choose not to have a smart meter.
Opponents say a utility company or another party with access to the customer information could invade privacy and see which electricity-consuming activities are going on inside the home.
And Simpson continually brought up the radio frequency signals emitted by the meters. He suggested that pacemakers could be affected and that the meters may be connected to autism.
Round Rock Republican Rep. Larry Gonzales, who has a son with autism, challenged Simpson and demanded proof. Simpson backed off and acknowledged he wasn’t an expert on the disorder.
But “we didn’t know a whole lot about smoking for many years,” Simpson added.
Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, said some worries about smart meters are unfounded. But raising the issue lets commission officials know that it’s important to many Texans, he said.
Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, argued that the meters help people become smarter about electric usage. Those who don’t want them can get “completely off the grid,” he said.
Earlier the House upheld a provision that gives the utility commission emergency cease-and-desist authority over the electric industry if the reliability of the electric grid is in jeopardy or the public is endangered.
“This is about vulnerable Texans that we need to protect,” said Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas.
Throughout the debate, legislators said an unnamed “outside influence” wanted the proposed authority eliminated. An article on the website of the influential conservative group Empower Texas argued against the emergency power. It said the group would rate legislators positively for eliminating it.
Follow Kelley Shannon on Twitter at @kelleyshan.