Ask Pablo: Is My Smart Meter Going to Kill Me?

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Dear Pablo: I have been hearing a lot of controversy around smart meters. Are the additional radio waves emitted by them a danger to my family?

A "smart meter" is an electric or gas meter that electronically transmits meter readings to the utility. Smart meters are only a small component often touted, but rarely understood "Smart Grid." Recently smart meters have been getting a lot more attention, primarily due to a small, yet vocal group of concerned Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E;) customers protesting against their installation. The main concerns are around RF (radio frequency) emissions, privacy, and meter accuracy. Why Are Smart Meters Good?
Smart meters will allow utilities and customers to reduce energy use and save money. Customers will save money by being able to track their electricity usage in near-real time and then making lifestyle choices and appliance-buying decisions to lower their monthly utility bill. Customers will also be able to switch to a time-of-use (TOU) rate structure that allows them to take advantage of very low rates during non-peak hours by choosing to run appliances like washers and dryers at night, rather than during peak demand periods. New appliances and thermostats will interface with the new smart meters to run during non-peak hours or to reduce their usage during peak hours.

Shifting electricity usage to off-peak hours will also help reduce the utility's peak demand, reducing the number of new power plants that they have to build. Imagine the hottest day of the year. Every AC unit in the state is turned to 11 and the grid is straining under the demand. Now imagine a normal day, when statewide electricity demand is at about 80% of that hot day. This demand is met mostly with hydroelectric, nuclear and very large power plants that do not like to be turned up and down too much; they provide the base load and they do so at about 33% efficiency. On the hottest day, when the grid is at 100% that electricity has to come from somewhere. Power plants have to be built and sit idle most of the year, just waiting for that hot day. These plants, called "peakers" can be ramped up and down quickly to keep up with demand but are far less efficient. So reducing the peak demand of the year actually results in not needing to build extra power plants.

Did you know that some utilities have to rely on customers calling to report an outage, and then drive around to determine the location of an interruption? Not so with smart meters. Smart meters will report outages automatically and allow utilities to pinpoint a problem to within the distance between two homes. Finally, smart meters eliminate the need for someone to drive to your neighborhood once a month an creep around your house to manually read you meter, although I do hope that the utilities have new jobs for these people.

Why Are Smart Meters Bad?
Concerns have been raised about RF emissions from smart meters and some towns have even banned them as a result. The claims and counter-claims being made can be confusing to say the least. Consider for a moment other sources of RF emissions; your mobile phone, your WiFi router, microwave ovens, radio stations, lightning bolts, and the sun. All of these sources have RF emissions of varying frequency, duration, and intensity. While radio stations put out thousand of Watts, the antennas are quite far away and the intensity decreases with distance. Mobile phones are in close proximity to our bodies but their intensity is quite small and has not been conclusively shown to cause harm. Smart meters only transmit once every fifteen minutes but when they do it is in a powerful burst, intended to reach distant receivers. On the average, a smart meter puts out 0.01 microwatts (compared to 10-20 microwatts for your WiFi). As PG&E; explains it: "You'd have to live with one of our meters for more than 1,000 years to get as much exposure to radio waves as a typical cell phone user gets in just one month."

Complaints by utility customers in California's Central Valley about a spike in electricity charges on their bills after smart meter installation fanned the anti-smart meter flames and triggered the Public Utility Commission to perform a study. Rather than confirming that smart meters don't work, or are being manipulated for financial gain the report placed the blame on a heat wave and an increase in rates.

Evil Plot, or Misunderstood Technology?
As with many new technologies that are poorly understood by the public, smart meters will initially have their opponents. Some of their concerns will me legitimate, at least if you believe in the Precautionary Principle, and others border on tin foil hat conspiracy theory. Utilities have a legitimate interest in reducing the amount of electricity used during peak hours and smart meters are one tool that will help them do so, potentially reducing their contribution to climate change and your electric bill in the process.