BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Monday joined utility and environmental group leaders to tout the benefits of "smart" meters, the new generation of digital electric measuring devices designed to save energy and lead to better management of the power grid.

"The bottom line is that smart grid offers real benefits for consumers and the environment," Sanders said.

Vermont got $69 million in federal stimulus funds to modernize its electric transmission system as part of a more than $4 billion national investment in smart grid technology, Sanders said.

The effects already have been seen in Vermont, said David Hallquist, CEO of the Vermont Electric Cooperative, which is headquartered in Johnson.

He said his utility's smart meters cut the outage response time in half after Tropical Storm Irene struck the state last year.

"We have only begun to scratch the surface of the benefits this technology has to offer," said Hallquist. "On an individual level, consumers are better able to manage electricity consumption. On a utility level, VEC has significantly reduced its number of outages. And on a broader level, smart grid technology is helping us to integrate more renewable energy."

Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said Vermonters want clean energy and the smart grid will help to make that possible.

"Going door-to-door throughout the state we've found incredible support for wind, solar and other renewable resources," Burns said. "Smart technology allows those resources to be integrated into the grid while giving consumers the chance to make more responsible energy choices of their own."

Not everyone is fully on board with the technology, though. Some Vermont consumers have tried to take advantage of a state law allowing them to opt out of having a smart meter installed on their property only to find utility subcontractors have installed them anyway.

Annette Smith, founder of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said smart meter technology can have some benefits, but that some consumers are concerned about the possible health effects of wireless transmissions that send information about electric usage from a consumer's property to the utility. Utilities have pushed back against those criticisms, saying that wireless meters use weak signals with radio frequency emissions similar to cellphones and baby monitors.

VEC uses a wired, rather than wireless, smart meter system, though others in the state are using wireless systems.

Smith said there also are privacy concerns with the data about power usage that is collected by smart meters.