Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

For a meter read, it was an unusually large crowd.

Three Pepco supervisors and an representative from the D.C. Public Service Commission assembled one day last month on the gravelly driveway outside Chris Turner’s house in Takoma.

Turner was there too, along with a couple of his neighbors. They looked on as Pepco engineer Mike Foster pointed the long arm of an antenna at the new electric meter mounted on the side of Turner’s house. Each time it transmitted, a line would jump on the screen Foster held in his other hand.

Pepco has rolled out meters like Turner’s to nearly all of its 270,000 D.C. customers over the last 18 months. To advocates, they represent the promise of a “smart grid” of greener energy.

Turner, however, is not one of those advocates.

As anyone who subscribes to one of the city’s neighborhood email lists knows, a vocal portion of the population sees menace in the meters. Their posts offer links to Internet sites that say the meters may cause house fires, spy on you, or overbill. Less specifically, critics also rail against the devices’ contribution to an allegedly harmful “fog” of electromagnetic waves.

If you believe “electrosensitivity” is real, the smart meters represent a massive new assault on life as we know it.

“I can’t sleep and my head doesn’t feel right often” says Turner, the vice present of the upper Northwest community group Neighbors, Inc. Turner says he first noticed the symptoms in late January. Since then, he says, he’s moved his bedroom to put more distance between himself and the digital device. He also shelled out about $150 on monitoring equipment; you can see the equipment in action in a video Turner posted online at the video sharing website, Vimeo, that shows his meter allegedly going haywire.

Turner wants the electric company to return his old meter. Pepco has refused.

“The meters are safe and the benefits are real,” says Kenneth Farrell, manager of Advanced Metering Infrastructure deployment for the utility. “There’s no valid technical reason” to allow residents to opt out.

Turner’s side had no better luck with the D.C. Public Service Commission, which regulates Pepco. The meters are safe, says Commission Chair Betty Ann Kane, who notes that the city’s Water and Sewer Authority has used the same technology for six years.

While some scientific research suggests that long-term exposure to electromagnetic fields could increase the risks of cancer or neurological problems, electrosensitivity is not a recognized diagnosis; many experts think it’s purely psychosomatic.

That’s one way to put it. Other residents see the fears expressed in smart meter foes’ listserv blitzes—they tend to put the word “smart” in scare quotes, and hint at a conspiracy to cover up the carcinogenic truth—as downright paranoid.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” says Susanna Murley, a smart grid supporter who works at Planet Forward, a sustainability website. “I was surprised when I got on this Listserv.” Murley says the meters will reduce stress on the power grid, protecting the environment.

Tom Matzzie, an Internet consultant in Mount Pleasant, says he’d had to “bite his tongue,” so as not to mock some of the posts. Matzzie says the smart grid is essential to scaling up the amount of energy generated by renewable sources like his own home’s solar panels.

“Their concerns seem like rumors on the Internet, myths and conspiracy theories,” Matzzie says.

Depending on your point of view, you can thank either the subprime mortgage industry or Barack Obama for the meter wars.

Pepco had been working for years on plans to upgrade its old-fashioned meters. But the plans were fast-tracked by the stimulus bill that followed the 2008 financial collapse. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act set aside $4.5 billon for the new technology. Pepco got $44.6 million. A successful 2010 pilot project was held up as a national model, Pepco says; it began installing meters citywide that same year.

Alas, like just about every other aspect of the stimulus, things didn’t quite work out so smoothly. Several states saw revolts over the new meters. People like Turner make it clear that alarms about newfangled, government-endorsed devices can happen inside the Beltway as easily as in the Sun Belt.

So far, Pepco’s strategy has been to compare the meters to trusted everyday gadgets. Back at Turner’s house, Foster, the Pepco engineer, brought along a walkie-talkie and two-way radio to illustrate how even baby monitors and FM radios send out much stronger signals than the meters. The FCC allows for signal strength of slightly more than 600 microwatts per square centimeter. A Pepco crew’s remote read of Turner’s meter clocked it at just 170 microwatts.

“Even if the meter was transmitting 100 percent of the time, 24/7, this level is well below the safety limits,” Foster wrote in a follow-up email.

That’s not very comforting to Cleveland Park resident Ann Loikow, who like Turner, is concerned that the smart meters could add dangerous amounts of radiation to the invisible beams already zipping around from cell phones, telecommunications towers, and other sources.

“We’re sitting in this bath of electromagnetic signals that the human body wasn’t designed for,” says Loikow, who says a work crew snuck onto her property and replaced her meter about six weeks ago, while she and her husband were asleep. The couple had already thwarted two previous attempts.

“There is no-opt out provision in D.C.,” Pepco spokesman Bob Hainey said when asked about Loikow’s allegation. “That’s the bottom line.” (Loikow would have better luck if she moved: California and Vermont are among the states with opt-out programs). Kane says it’s not going to happen here: The D.C. Council legislation enabling the meter conversion stipulated that “all” residents should get the new meters.”

Besides, Kane adds: “if people started opting out, it would change the economics. It would change the calculation that we used to determine that the federal funds were sufficient.”

When it isn’t debunking Internet rumors, Pepco offers some fairly convincing arguments for why the new meters are good: The devices, for instance, allow customers to track their energy usage in hourly increments, which could help them save on bills. Real time information will also help the utility fix outages more quickly. Unfortunately, Pepco’s ability to sell those arguments is hampered by its laggardly outage-response times and the much-maligned utility’s recent request for a rate hike.

“Pepco has a responsibility to be more reliable (in fixing outages) regardless,” says Louis Davis, Jr., senior state director for AARP’s D.C. office. While his group is “cautiously optimistic” about smart meters, he says the power company has yet to make a convincing case that the new technology will lead to lower bills.

The senior-citizens’ organization is less troubled by unproven electromagnetic health allegations than by more prosaic pocketbook issues: Smart meter installation is expected to usher in “dynamic pricing,” which would raise the price of electricity during peak usage hours, like summer afternoons when air conditioners are running at full blast. That might encourage the general public to conserve, but it would be tough on the elderly, who are most likely to be home during afternoon hours.

Pepco says it hopes that higher afternoon prices would convince more people to, say, put off that load of laundry until after 10 p.m., lessening the stress on the system. Environmentalist say that reduction in stress would reduce the pressure to build new power plants.

That’s still a few years away, says Kane. Her commission, which would have to okay such a plan, rejected Pepco’s first dynamic pricing proposal a few years ago.

Back on the email lists, though, quibbling over the dollars and cents of dynamic pricing seems beside the point. “So, not only am I being exposed to RF radiation against my will, but, in addition, every single house on my street has a smart meter that will be transmitting to a receiver nearby,” someone named Nyaneba Nkrumah wrote on the Chevy Chase list on March 12. “Has anyone studied that compounding effect? That is indeed an RF ‘fog.’”