Smart Meters: Dumb Idea?
By Cindy J. Cole
There is no question that advancements in technology have impacted almost everyone on the planet in one way or another. In the United States, our lives have changed dramatically over the last fifty years or so with the development of cordless phones, computers, the Internet, microwave ovens, cell phones, and wireless networks. For many, these developments have made lives easier and allowed folks to keep in touch with family and friends around the world or even run a business from any location. However, many are also starting to ask whether all this progress comes with a steep, even lethal, price tag. The recent death of Apple mogul, Steven Jobs, has been related by some to continuous long-term exposure to high Electro-Magnetic Fields, a by-product of his life’s work – he had a rare form of pancreatic cancer that only shows up those who have undergone extensive imaging for another illness.
Often we know that there are risks involved as we willingly incorporate technology into our lives. In some cases, we choose to accept the risks or try to find ways to mitigate them. In others, we deny that the risks exist and just move on with our lives. But when do the risks begin to outweigh the benefits? At what point do we need to take a stand and say enough is enough? When do we begin to look at the good of the many and not just the few? Many people are drawing that line in the sand when it comes to the installation of smart meters.
Smart meter installation has begun across the country and in other parts of the world including Europe and Australia. Smart meters are an integral part of creating a worldwide “smart grid” for delivery of utility services. In the US, the federal government has provided over $4.5 billion for the development and implementation of smart grid technologies. Advocates of this extensive plan see it as an energy-saving way to control the flow of power nationwide. Opponents see it as expensive, invasive, unsafe, and unhealthy.
So, what is a smart meter? According to the Arizona Public Service (APS) website a smart meter “is a meter that provides two-way communication of information on energy use between your home and APS. Smart meters can be read and programmed remotely without sending a service person to your home.” Sounds simple, right? But what APS fails to mention is that smart meters transmit the information they collect via wireless signals – utilizing Radio Frequencies (RF) that produce EMFs. In addition, in order for smart meters to send their data back to APS, date hubs (equipment for collecting data from multiple meters and relaying it back) may need to be placed throughout neighborhoods adding to greater frequency emissions and EMFs.
The safety of RF exposure is something that is hotly debated amongst scientists, wireless equipment manufacturers, and utility companies. The World Health Organization has yet to provide extensive research regarding EMFs, which the utility companies have used as a determination of its safety. An APS pro-smart meter brochure states: “The World Health Organization has concluded that no known adverse health effects can be attributed to low-level radio frequency.” However, on the WHO website, the line following this statement is that “there are gaps in knowledge still needing to be filled before better health risk assessments can be made.” And in May 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a WHO specialty agency, declared RFs to be a “possible human carcinogen.”
Dr. David Carpenter, a Harvard-trained physician who was the head of the New York State Department of Public Health for 18 years says that “we have evidence…that exposure to radio frequency radiation…increases the risk of cancer, increases damage to the nervous system, causes electro-sensitivity, has adverse reproductive effects and a variety of other effects on different organ systems. There is no justification for the statement that smart meters have no adverse health effects.” And just how much RF radiation is put out by smart meters is another point of contention.
APS and other utility companies that have begun implementing smart meters often claim that the RF emissions are no worse than what a person experiences with a cell phone held against the head. In some cases, this may be true but we always have the option of turning off our cell phone or using it with a wired headset that has been shown to reduce radiation exposure. Once a smart meter is installed on your home, there is no way to turn it off or move it. Some have equated this exposure to be more like living right next to a cell phone tower.
The RFs are measured from smart meters using a “time averaged” method. This approach looks at the RF emissions over 30-minute time spans. What independent research is showing, however, is that this method is serving to hide the extremely high spikes in RFs emitted when the meter pulses to communicate with the mesh network or send data. By averaging out the high spikes with the lower emissions during non-transmission times, the overall level of emissions appears lower. But the spikes can be so high that they are off the scale of even the most sophisticated measuring devices. And the pulses tend to come in unpredictable and erratic patterns.
Utility companies have tried to tell consumers that their smart meters pulse infrequently but this is also proving to be untrue. APS claims that their wireless meters send out signals for no more than a few minutes in a 24-hour period. However, independent researchers who have measured functioning smart meters have found them to be pulsing at rates as high as 2 to 20 times per second. There is even research that indicates that this pulsed form of RF radiation is actually more dangerous to people than a constant stream, like that found with cell phones and Wi-Fi. This research was related to sickness amongst radar operators and was conducted in the 1930’s.
If science and research isn’t enough to prove the RF emissions from smart meters are dangerous, there are countless first-hand stories in complaints filed with utility commissions across the country, where otherwise healthy people who have suffered from the physical impacts of radiation from smart meters. Many report these effects occurring within hours of smart meter installation. The health issues reported include headaches, nausea, heart problems, insomnia, ringing in the ears, stress, anxiety, and irritability.
Another factor in the health concerns raised by smart meters is the creation of what has become known as “dirty electricity”. This phenomenon could explain why some people begin to experience health symptoms even before their smart meter starts broadcasting. The smart meter can cause voltage shifts in the power lines going into your home which in turn cause high frequency electricity to emit RFs through your appliances and other electrical devices. This creates high-level EMFs in your home that can cause the illnesses listed above. Again, this is a hotly debated issue as there are some who do not believe that this phenomenon even exists and others who have reported the onset of health issues immediately following the installation of a smart meter.
Health issues are not the only reason why smart meters may not be such a smart idea. There are also extensive concerns about the security of the meters and the wireless system that is designed to carry usage data to the utility companies. The very features that the power companies say will allow them to deliver your electricity more efficiently are what make the system extremely vulnerable to hackers creating a variety of security concerns.
Microsoft itself, on a Windows help forum on their website, declares “there is no way to guarantee complete security on a wireless network.” And, unlike Wi-Fi and Bluetooth security systems, in the protocol used for wireless transmission in smart meters, called Zigbee, the encryption keys are transmitted as plain text. This is equivalent to using the word “password” to secure a sophisticated computer network.
An article in the September/October 2009 issue of Technology Review, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, included several different methods by which the security of a smart meter could be compromised. From tapping into a meter’s memory chip using syringes to listening in on the wireless transmissions, the article demonstrated that there could be extreme risks to data security using the current generation of smart meters. And, once the smart grid system is in place, the data from your meter could also be present in multitudes of additional meters in your neighborhood. The smart grid is designed so that meters share information from surrounding meters so that all data will eventually be transmitted to the collecting agency. If one meter fails to transmit, data is duplicated on other meters so it will not be lost.
At the personal level, concerns about what information is transmitted over the smart grid are high. If the security of the system is vulnerable, then any personal information that is a part of your utility account could be up for grabs. A hacker could also falsify data regarding your rates and usage – hopefully to your benefit! Not to mention being able to tell whether or not anyone is home based on the amount of electricity use the meter is reporting or the ability to disable a home security system.
On a bigger scale, hackers could potentially break into the grid through any individual smart meter and gain control over the entire system. One of the perks of smart meters touted by companies like APS is that they will be able to shut off a consumer’s electricity without having to make a site visit. So the system contains remote shut off mechanisms that could also be vulnerable to attack allowing a hacker to shut down the power grid any place that a smart meter is present. If the utility companies have their way, smart meters will be everywhere – including hospitals, schools, and banks. Because of the mesh nature of the smart grid, it has also been shown that a virus introduced into a single meter would spread like a wildfire.
Another by-product of smart meter installation has been an increase in electrical fires in buildings that have them. In California, where Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has installed more than 8 million smart meters, a fire in East Palo Alto involved 80 burning smart meters. In San Bruno, a fire caused by exploding smart meters killed 8 people and destroyed the homes in an entire neighborhood. Multiple reports of smart meters smoking, smoldering, burning, and exploding have been filed.
PG&E has, more often than not, blamed faulty wiring for these electrical fires. However, it may not be that simple. The problem may once again be related to the high RF spikes emitted by the smart meters. These spikes are not intended to travel down the electrical lines in a building connected to a smart meter. However, various factors can cause the high frequencies produced to do just that. Improper installation of the meters by inadequately trained technicians has been suggested. Arcing of power in the lines and shorts can also occur. Cindy Sage, of Sage Associates, an independent environmental consulting firm, stated in a July 2010 report that “wireless smart meters don’t intentionally use the electrical system to send their RF signal back to the utility to report energy usage. But, when the wireless signal is produced in the meter…it boomerangs around on all the conductive components and can be coupled onto the wiring, water and gas lines, etc. where it can be carried to other parts of the residence or building.”
Current wiring standards are not sufficient to support the high frequency spikes that emit from smart meters. In addition, smart meters have not been tested and approved under federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules, nor are they certified by Underwriters Laboratories, the independent, non-profit product safety testing and certification organization that certifies most of the rest of the electrical equipment consumed in the US. This means that, in general, homeowners insurance will not pick up the tab for damages caused by a smart meter.
In addition to fires, there are also a plethora of reports from people whose home appliances have been damaged or destroyed following the installation of a smart meter. The electrical equipment we have in our homes is also incapable of handling the large RF spikes that may be delivered through the wiring by the smart meter.
The Final Blow
On top of all the health, security, and safety issues that have been raised, the final blow often comes along with the first bill the consumer receives after installation of a smart meter. In spite of promises that the new meters will save energy and money, most utility customers report an immediate increase in their monthly bill – sometimes more than two or three times the amount they were billed for under their analog meter. There are several reasons why this may occur, though companies like PG&E and APS have failed to offer their own justifications for this broken promise.
One explanation is that companies are varying rates more for peak and off-peak use of power. So, for consumers who are on a time-rated plan, the real-time monitoring capabilities of smart meters may mean they are paying more now for the fact that their refrigerator runs all day long. Another explanation speculated is that consumers are being charged for electricity delivered to the meter on the power company’s side of the lines but not used yet on the homeowner’s side – a way of charging for potential use rather than actual use.
Whatever explanation is applied, thousands of complaints have been filed with corporation commissions that govern utility companies in the states where smart meters have been implemented. And consumers have filed lawsuits against PG&E in California and against public utilities in Maine and Texas. Will suits against APS be far behind?
There is no federal mandate for the implementation of smart meters. In Arizona, there is also no official option to not have one. APS had initially told those that protested the installation of a smart meter on their property that they would be put on a “temporary” opt-out list and that further installations would be delayed until 2013. However, more recent contacts with the utility provider have been less gracious. One consumer received a letter from APS that stated: “Our Company is in the process of installing smart meters throughout the state and we expect to complete the project by the end of 2014. I regret to inform you that we do not offer the option of opting-out.” In Maine, people had to fight for it but they were eventually given the option to refuse smart meters. Californians are still fighting for it. However, the alternative proposed by the utility companies is often an exorbitant fee for those who choose not to have a smart meter.
Research has shown that there are other, safer technologies that can be implemented to make our power delivery systems more efficient. In fact, there is significant evidence that wireless technologies place an even greater strain on the environment than wired ones. And what about all the people whose job it is to go out and read your meter? Is this really the time to be forcing people out of their jobs so we can rush into an expensive technology that may have a great deal of risk involved in its implementation?
Maybe these so-called “smart” meters are really a dumb idea after all.