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Will Worcester Smart Grid Succeed or Fail?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Will at the proposed Tatnuck area tower ever become a reality?

The proposed Tatnuck area tower for the National Grid "smart grid" project may be on hold following the recent Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, but smart meter opponents were bolstered by the turnout -- and the opportunity to continue to voice their concerns.

"If we were optimistic going into the meeting -- we're now optimistic cubed, " said grassroots activist Clare Donegan.  The Zoning Board voted to seek additional information on the proposed communications tower construction at 30 Tory Fort Lane or 597 Mill Street prior to its next meeting on February 3.

National Grid wants to utilize the tower to transmit information for its smart grid pilot proposal, which it says will provide advanced communication equipment on the grid to monitor, identify and quickly correct problems -- and provide increased reliability of power as a result.

Opponents have been outspoken on the grounds of potential health issues for residents, as well as privacy issues.

"We want George Clooney, because this looks like "The Perfect Storm", said Donegan, referring to the movie of the ill-fated Andrea Gail. "The United States has inadequate FCC limits, and Massachusetts -- while a "green communities" state -- is overriding the environmental concerns of its citizens, and now Worcester is facing attempts to implement a pilot program with enormous consequences."

Former Mayor and City Councilor Konstantina Lukes said she had been initially supportive of the concept while Mayor but has "changed her position" after hearing from those in the community who have expressed their concerns -- and how the process was moving forward.

"What happens when the corporate sector -- who cares about profits -- when merged and married to government power is a concept that challenges our traditional definition of democracy," said Lukes.

Grid Meeting Response, Next Steps

The smart grid issue continues to heat up in Worcester -- what will be the result?

"We understand that the communities we serve sometimes have concerns about the projects we need to undertake to provide quality service. We try our best to work with our communities to listen, address concerns and advance the best possible outcome or solution – this is a practice we employ across all of our service areas," National Grid spokesperson Deborah Drew told GoLocal.

Drew continued, "Here, National Grid is seeking ZBA approval for the proposed project at the Tatnuck Substation on Mill Street. In fact, after engaging customers in the Tory Fort Lane area, we agreed to postpone our initial petition while we conducted additional engineering studies, finding a preferred alternate location for the WiMax tower is the Tatnuck area. We believe that installing the proposed communications base station at the Tatnuck Substation is the best possible outcome for the community and our customers."

Drew was optimistic that the process would continue to move forward successfully.  

"It’s National Grid’s understanding from the ZBA chair’s comments at [Monday] night’s hearing the Board will seek direction from the city’s attorneys regarding what aspects of the proposed project the Board should properly consider as it makes its decision on National Grid’s zoning applications. National Grid believes the criteria that the Board needs to apply in deciding this matter are set forth in the Worcester Zoning Ordinance’s provisions governing Personal Wireless Service Facilities, and by applying these criteria, the ZBA should properly be able to regulate the location and construction of the proposed project within the limitations specified in the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996. National Grid will continue to work with the ZBA and the city’s attorneys and provide them the information they require to make the best possible decision."

Opponents Raising Health, Governmental Oversight Concerns

"I think the whole [smart grid] issue requires people who want to be informed, to be informed -- to get the local, federal, and international perspective," said longtime HaltMAsmartmeters activist, Patricia Burke. 

Burke cited the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as "preventing communities from voicing environmental or health concerns about the infrastructure."

Will promise of new technology trump community concerns?

"It was passed in 1996 to stimulate the economy, and wireless technology overrode local zoning ordinances," said Burke. "I think at that point, it was new technology, and any harms were theoretical. Now we have people showing physical harm. They think we're afraid of something that's unknown, but we have proof."

Burke cited the increased warnings associated with cell phones -- including the inclusion of earphones when new phones are sold -- as a warning. "People compare smart meters to cell phones favorably, but we're seeing more information coming out now about the health effects of cell phones," said Burke.

Follwing the ZBA meeting, Burke said was " heartened" by the people that came out -- and the issues raised. "I think the potential is there to halt this," said Burke. "Everyone who spoke did so with knowledge and passion."

Lukes, who said she had concerns with the health issues that been had raised, addressed what she saw as potentially problematic with smart grid technology.

"There are so many legitimate issues with privacy, hacking -- weaknesses of technology -- and individuals ability to respond, or victimized by technology. It raises frightening specter," said Lukes. "I was very concerned about their definition of a "personal wireless mechanism" -- it's not personal to the consumers, their privacy's being invaded. It's only personal to National Grid."

DPU Looking to Move Grid Modernization Forward

In December, the Patrick Administration announced they would "require grid modernization plans for electric utilities" -- including "investing in infrastructure for advanced metering functionality."

“Grid modernization will allow customers to gain more control over their electricity usage and save money on their electricity bills,” said DPU Chair Ann Berwick. “Developing a policy to fully realize the benefits of a modern grid is part of the DPU’s mission to increase the reliability of electric service for residents across the Commonwealth and facilitate the integration of renewable power.”

Pursuant to the last ZBA meeting, National Grid remained optimistic that Worcester would approve the latest tower -- and ultimately their proposed smart grid plan.

"We are hopeful that we will receive the ZBA’s approval. A positive outcome benefits the pilot participants and the city through enabling electric distribution infrastructure upgrades that will allow various levels of automation on our system that will help us quickly identify and respond to outages, and reduce the frequency and duration of power outages," said Drew. "This is one aspect of the Smart Energy Solutions Program that the WiMax towers will help provide."

Smart meter opponent Donegan said that they would continue to oppose the effort -- and pointed to Germany's defeat of a smart meter measure last fall.

"Now Governor Patrick is saying let's mandate these?" said Donegan. "This is such a complex subject, but I feel people are now waking up."  


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