Smart Meters and Smart Regulation

The poor little smart meter…it keeps catching all kinds of grief when all that it wants to do is save the planet.

It is all things to all people. To utilities, regulators, and many environmentalists, it is the doorway to a modern green grid that will teach you to turn down your air conditioner when demand is high, and make it easier to rely on intermittent solar and wind energy. To many utility customers, it is black box that probably doesn’t count kilowatt hours very well. To some people, it is an uninvited and unwelcome persistent source of radio waves with possible health implications. Hired experts are trying to figure out whether the meters count things accurately, while others debate the significance of various health studies.
Here is where the public policy question gets interesting: how confident should regulators be that the devices are accurate and that they won’t hurt anybody before telling the utilities to install them everywhere? One thing is certain – California utilities are installing the meters first, and asking questions later.
An industry newsletter called California Energy Markets, in its August 13, 2010 issue, did a nice job of laying out the facts. The investor-owned utilities in the state, with the blessing of regulators, are methodically removing all of the old mechanical meters, and replacing them with computerized versions that measure usage every few minutes, and allow for two-way communication between customers and providers. A relatively small number of customers have reported dramatically higher bills since their meters have been switched. Pacific Gas & Electric Company, the utility in question, has responded by ordering tests for some of its meters. The regulators have ordered a study of their own.
Meanwhile, the change-out continues. Increasingly, other customers have raised health concerns. They cite a BioInitiative Report that they say explains the relationship between wireless devices and health, and a European Commission response that (without endorsing the findings) says that if the BioInitiative study is right, there is reason for concern. State Assemblyman Jared Huffman has asked the California Council on Science and Technology to chime in. The town of Fairfax recently placed a one-year moratorium on smart meter installations. California Energy Markets further reports that Capitola, Fairfax, Monte Sereno, Scotts Valley, and Santa Cruz (city and county) have joined San Francisco in asking for a halt to smart meter installation pending investigation of accuracy, billing, and other issues.
What is a regulator to do? In aggregate, these meters and their installation are very expensive. Should officials stop the statewide conversion because a few customers have received questionable bills? Should policy makers jump into action every time concerned citizens raise controversial health issues? Common sense might suggest that new equipment shouldn’t be installed when pubic trust is lagging behind. The process could be put on hold until studies are completed, but at what cost? And let’s suppose that those health questions won’t be decisively resolved for quite some time – if ever. Should the movement to smart meters stop because no one can be entirely sure if there a related dangers?

Some customers want to have a choice – to be able to reject the installation of a smart meter on their property. As of now, the conversion is mandatory, and is likely to stay that way. Does the imposition of a mandatory change place a greater obligation on policy makers to ensure that everything is safe? State law suggests as much, in the form of the California Environmental Quality Act and other laws. Officials are supposed to look for the potential of significant impacts first, and act later. A full environmental study would have at least pointed out the concerns, and helped regulators to determine whether there was any kind of problem worth mitigating. But there was no such study, which is why the regulators and the utilities now face a bit of a problem.

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Reader Comments

3 Replies to “Smart Meters and Smart Regulation”

  1. It doesn’t make sense to fund utilities to do things the same old bad way, when public health experts says change is needed (BioInitiative Report, 2007; Pathophysiology 16, 2009). Why put billions into new wireless technologies for ‘smart meters’ that are likely to come with a health price-tag… when – yes – as a nation our number one imperative is to reduce out-of-control health care costs.

    Wireless “smart meters” will require a new blanket of wireless radiation over entire communities. More wireless. No public input. No health effects discussion. No way to opt out. We are already at unsustainable levels for wireless in many places.

    Smart meters are supposed to help reduce energy usage and allow utilities to spread out energy demand by letting consumers know when to do their energy-consumptive chores like washing clothes. But, the public is not buying the “green” story line. It’s easier and far cheaper to unplug a few appliances when it gets seasonably hot or cold. Why take the health and safety risks of blanket wireless for unknown gains?

    No one has shown that the lifecycle energy savings for this program will be any greater than the energy costs for the program. Savings that might or might not be realized by inflicting smart meters on consumers. The energy costs for the information transmission and storage alone will be measured in terabytes – gargantuan in terms energy usage for new wireless information transmission and storage needs, on top of the energy costs to produce, transport, and install the meters themselves, build the new cell antenna systems, and produce, install and operate the power transmitters inside each appliance.

    One might reasonably ask “where’s the money to investigate these risks FIRST’? The public doesn’t want smart meters forced on them. At least not before the US National Toxicology Program finishes up the study on RF that is not due out until 2014 (and, yes, we ARE wondering why if this program started in 1999, its taking 15 years to complete).
    The early evidence points to multiple and serious impacts ranging from health effects (sleep disruption, heart arrhythmias and chest pain, headache, extreme fatigue, memory and concentration problems, disorientation and dizziness, etc.) to hacking of personal information, to interference with critical care equipment and medical implants to electrical fires.

    And, it especially rankles when you consider that the CPUC has for decades ignored the health risks from transmission line EMF, even in the face of WHO IARC’s decision in 2001 that EMF is classifiable as a Group 2B (Possible) Carcinogen, right there with DDT and lead.

    The bulk of the $3.4 billion in federal stimulus dollars for ‘smart metering’ will do nothing more than supercharge the building of more transmission lines and add a layer of radiofrequency radiation (RF) to the system for monitoring and reporting. And, not a penny for or a single word about potential health effects. Now, your electrical power lines can bring you two potential carcinogens, instead of one. The CPUC has had sufficient scientific evidence since 1993 that EMF from power lines poses health risks, but has done essentially nothing to modify the way utilities are allowed to site, construct and operate power lines in communities. The CPUC should be out in front of the public safety questions about blanket wireless before it launches a universal assault on communities with it.

  2. Oh boy, what is happening in America is happening in my state of Queensland.

    We had solar panels put onto the roof of our home, and then the power company came along and installed smart metres in our mains power box. There are three mains power boxes, so therefore there are three smart metres transmitting 24/7. My health has deterioated so much, that I feel that I can’t last.

    Our state government has just gone ahead and made it mandatory even though the first state to install them, Victoria, is now finding real serious problems.

    All I know is that we have 120 units in our complex, which means in a four acre block we have 120 smart metres.

  3. Further to my comment above, I have also found that the radiation from these smart metres are also being piggybacked into our home via the electrical wiring and causing further torment.

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Steven Weissman

Steve established and directed the Energy Law Program at Berkeley Law. He is currently a Lecturer at the Goldman School of Public Policy.…

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