Smart or kooky? Why some Peco customers go off the grid

Some people think Diane and Stephen Van Schoyck are kooks, so they're careful telling how they became sick in 2014 after Peco installed a smart meter on their house in Langhorne, Bucks County.

"We both woke up, couldn't sleep," said Stephen Van Schoyck, 64, a clinical psychologist in private practice. They heard an unrelenting hum from the house's wiring.

Diane Van Schoyck, 62, an artist, said she developed chest pains, shortness of breath, and shingles. The couple did some research and suspected the wireless transmissions from their new smart meter were the culprit.

The Van Schoycks are among a small but resolute community of customers opposing the new digital smart meters for a variety of reasons, including health concerns and fear of government intrusion into their privacy.

Frustrating these customers, some to the point of desperation, is the 2008 Pennsylvania law that ordered state-regulated electric utilities to install the meters. No exceptions.

"The question is, how far do you have to go in the state of Pennsylvania to protect yourself from harm?" Stephen Van Schoyck said.

Defiant, the Van Schoycks replaced Peco's digital device with an analog meter they bought on the internet, the kind with spinning dials. "That restored our ability to sleep, it created a tremendous difference," Stephen said.

But it put them on a collision course with Peco, which threatened to terminate their electric service. So the Van Schoycks took a radical step:

They cut the cord completely, installing their own energy system - a combination of solar panels, propane power generator, and battery storage. The cost to unplug from the grid: $120,000.

The Van Schoycks hired Lancaster County renewable-energy contractor John Smucker to design a 9-kilowatt solar system mounted on poles behind their house - they did not want roof-mounted panels. To produce power in periods of low sunlight, they installed a 14-kilowatt propane generator.

The system includes an 11,000-pound battery capable of storing 150 kilowatt hours of power, more than a three-day supply, Smucker said. The battery cost in excess of $40,000, more than a third of the total project cost.

The five-ton battery and inverters are housed in a metal shed. Nearby, the couple painted a whimsical sign on the fence: "Van Schoyck Power & Light."

"I'm not sure economically you can really justify it," said Stephen, who tapped into his retirement account and a credit line to pay for the project. "There's a hundred reasons you could claim this would be the stupidest thing you can do. You have to be clear on your thinking, and take the risk and do what you think is right."

The Van Schoycks would not have taken such a dramatic measure were they permitted to decline a smart meter, as 21 states allow, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Regulators across the nation have dismissed customers' fears as unfounded. They say that smart meters emit less radiation than cellphones or microwave ovens, and that the data transmissions are secure. More than 65 million smart meters have been installed, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

Yet opposition persists, partly fueled by a network of conspiratorial websites that find common cause between smart-meter activists and a broader cultural movement suspicious of government and large institutions.

"The opposition groups get a lot of traffic," said Patty Durand, president of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative, a nonprofit advocacy group in Atlanta. "I think they're charlatans trying to scare the public, because when you pick apart their arguments, the data and the science they use is completely bogus."

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has dismissed most smart-meter complaints, saying that the law requiring the devices is unequivocal. It has allowed one narrow class of cases to move forward: Customers who say they can show the meters impaired their health, which they allege violates a utility's obligation to provide safe service.

Most customers with health-related complaints say they suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, a condition inconclusively supported by scientific studies. But to those who say they are afflicted, it is very real.

"If you were as electromagnetically sensitive as I am, avoiding microwaves everywhere I go, it's a life-or-death situation," said Laura Sunstein Murphy, a West Chester lawyer who also has a smart-meter case pending against Peco. Her PUC hearings were delayed because she said the fluorescent lighting, cellphones, and wireless communications in the commission's hearing rooms made her unwell.

Peco has spent $747 million since 2009 to install "advanced metering infrastructure" for nearly all its 1.6 million electric customers and 511,000 gas customers. Smart meters allow for two-way communication, permitting the utility to instantly monitor use and power-quality data, detect outages, and remotely shut off customers.

Initially, thousands of Peco customers balked about smart-meter installation, though only about 164 customers still refuse them, down from 985 a year ago. The utility says it has "communicated extensively" to educate customers about the benefits of smart meters. It also threatens to shut off customers who refuse.

Fourteen Peco customers have smart-meter complaints pending with the PUC, which puts any shut-off efforts in abeyance. In those cases that go to hearings, Peco employs outside lawyers and out-of-town expert witnesses who testify that no credible studies show the meters are unsafe, and that Peco's new generation of meters actually emit less radiation than the wireless meters they are replacing.

As the Van Schoycks discovered, it's difficult to prove ailments are caused by smart meters.

"You can't prove causality," said Stephen Van Schoyck. "The best you can do is to make inferences: We took the smart meter off our house and felt the difference."

Barbara and Charles Tucker of Oreland, who like the Van Schoycks were represented by lawyers Edward Lanza and Steve Harvey, also filed a PUC complaint over health issues. But the retirees say they were worn down by the protracted legal battle.

"We capitulated," Barbara Tucker said in June. The Tuckers agreed to move the electric meter, at their expense, away from their bedroom.

Susan Kreider, a registered nurse, declined to relocate her meter away from her Germantown house and instead replaced the digital device with an unauthorized analog meter. In September, two hearing examiners dismissed her arguments that the smart meter made her sick, and she is awaiting a final PUC decision.

The PUC cases can be appealed to Commonwealth Court, where smart-meter opponents hope the 2008 law requiring universal smart meters might be challenged.

Utilities have resisted allowing customers to opt out, saying it is impractical to maintain two separate metering systems, including one that requires manual meter readings.

"Allowing some customers to opt out would impose substantial cost on all customers because it would require an entirely separate data collection system for an extremely small number of customers," Peco spokesman Greg Smore said.

Legislation to allow opt-outs was stymied by State Rep. Robert Godshall, the powerful Montgomery County Republican who heads the House Consumer Affairs Committee.

Smart-meter critics say Godshall has a conflict of interest: His son, Grey, is employed as a Peco manager, though the company says he is an an aerial line supervisor and not involved with the smart-meter project, as activists charged in blog posts. Godshall did not respond to requests for comment.

"If there was an opt-out provision, then all these cases would just go away," said Murphy, the lawyer who said she is electromagnetically hypersensitive.

Even some smart-meter supporters say they're surprised Pennsylvania does not allow customers to decline smart meters. In states where opt-out is permitted, usually for a fee to pay for the costs of the separate meter system, only a small number of customers actually participate.

"Some consumers are unconvincible," said Durand, head of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative. "So rather than have consumers risk their lives and be off the grid, many PUCs will offer an opt-out policy."

The Van Schoycks said they wanted nothing to do with a smart meter, even one relocated to a pole on the street, because they believe it affects the power inside their house. Thus they decided to go solar.

On Nov. 4, Peco disconnected their service. Their self-powered system has some quirks that need to be worked out.

"I still hear a noise," Diane Van Schoyck said. "Solar has its own noise. But at least it's in our power to do something about it."

Her health has improved, she said. "I don't know if it's psychological, but I just feel better."

amaykuth@phillynews.com

215-854-2947 @maykuth

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