Philosophers sometimes pay a high price for standing by their philosophies.
Socrates drank hemlock after being convicted of corrupting the youth of ancient Athens. Civilly disobedient Henry David Thoreau went to jail rather than pay his taxes.
And Assya and Mario Pascalev, philosophers from Bethesda, Md., are going without air conditioning.
Pepco shut off power to the couple’s Colonial home on Aug. 4 after the Pascalevs — both of whom have doctorate degrees in philosophy — declined to pay a monthly $14 fee for refusing installation of a smart meter. They’re sweating out an August heat wave with their two teenage children and their Kerry blue terrier — that is, when they’re not taking refuge at Bethesda’s Hilton Garden Inn.
“We can afford to pay,” Assya Pascalev said of the couple’s power bill, which stands at $634.94 after a two-year battle. “It’s not a matter of money, it’s a matter of principle.”
The couple, whose story was first reported by Bethesda magazine, have put no small amount of thought into their stand.
Many Americans may not have noticed as utilities across the country replaced old-fashioned meters read by humans with smart meters that can be read remotely.
The Pascalevs, scrutinizing their Pepco bill in their home near Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, did take note — and not just because of a one-time $75 opt-out fee that preceded the monthly charge. Mario Pascalev, who works in IT, has an academic paper in the works about moral issues created by complicated software user agreements. Assya is a Howard University professor who studies biomedical ethics.
“When you have a conscientious objection, it’s a thought process rather than an arbitrary or emotional reaction,” she said.
The first problem with smart meters, according to the Pascalevs: a lack of privacy. The meters, designed to help “maintain your budget and control your energy costs,” according to Pepco’s website, offer too much information to utility companies and those who might hack them.
“Each appliance has a signature and consumes a specific amount of power,” a perspiring Mario Pascalev said as he wiped his brow in the sweltering dining room. “If I am given this information, I would know where you are in the house.”
And there are health and safety considerations, the Pascalevs say. Some argue that smart meters cause fires and are a source of dangerous radiation similar to cellphones and microwaves. The Maryland Public Service Commission, the administrative body that governs Pepco, says such concerns are unfounded.
Jonathan Libber, the president of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness, an anti-smart meter advocacy group, said smart meters were never tested for health effects before being installed en masse.
“We may find 10 to 15 years from now there is a huge spike in childhood leukemia,” he said. “What do you say, ‘We’re sorry’?” Citing the preliminary results of a National Institutes of Health study that may link cellphone radiation to tumors in rats, Libber added: “I would no longer say that these things may be dangerous. I would say they are dangerous.”
The Pascalevs say that evidence about health risks from smart meters is inconclusive — but that what isn’t broken shouldn’t be fixed, especially when change compromises personal choice. After all, this couple met in Bulgaria in the 1980s, where, as university students, they fought against the then-Communist nation’s compulsory military service.
“We’re probably more sensitive to limitations on individual liberties,” Assya Pascalev said.
Pepco, however, counters that smart meters bring a host of benefits. The meters don’t just help consumers save money but communicate information about power use and outages that improves customer service.
“Smart meters provide tremendous benefits to all of our customers by giving them detailed information on their energy usage and assisting if outages occur,” a statement from Pepco spokesman Vince Morris said. “We believe every one of our customers should embrace this smart technology and we believe strongly that suspicions that the meters are dangerous have no merit.”
Company officials say 98 percent of Pepco customers in the District and 99 percent of the ones in Maryland have smart meters.
The Maryland Public Service Commission also stands by the move. Saying concerns about health and security are baseless, the PSC this year opposed legislation that would have prohibited opt-out fees and required utilities to notify customers before installing smart meters.
Those who refuse to get on board must pay for the old system they insist on sticking to.
“There is no ‘free’ opt-out option,” the commission wrote in March. “Without an opt-out charge, the vast majority of customers who accept smart meters would have to subsidize a parallel and redundant billing and operations system for customers who retain a legacy meter.”
But the Pascalevs don’t think they have a responsibility to their public utility.
“I don’t see how choice is in any way in conflict with the greater good,” Assya Pascalev said.
As Pepco seeks a 10 percent rate increase in Maryland, the family is not alone in its stand against smart meters. Deborah Vollmer of Chevy Chase — known for a seven-year court battle with a neighbor over use of a shared driveway — is refusing to pay opt-out fees and is also subsidizing the Pascalevs’s $200 per night hotel bills.
“Let’s take a deep breath,” said Vollmer, who hasn’t had her electricity turned off. “Don’t bully us into accepting something that may or may not prove to be beneficial in the long term.”
The Pascalevs said their civil disobedience will soon end, although they aren’t sure when. They have a daughter on the way to college and a dog that needs more relief from the heat than trips around the neighborhood in an air-conditioned car. Thoreau, after all, only spent one night in jail — they’ve gone without air conditioning for two weeks.
When the time comes to pay their balance, their Pepco philosophy will remain unchanged.
“You know the thing they said about the unexamined life?” Mario Pascalev said. “We’re thinking about stuff.”