The Rush to “Smart” Meters: Maybe Not So Smart?

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May 27th, 2015

In a recent blog post I discussed a critique of today’s “smart meters” that focused on the technology’s shortcomings as a step toward creating a “smart grid” that reduces climate change risks and other negative impacts associated with our current carbon-intensive energy systems. In another recent post I discussed the need for more research on EMF health effects.

In this post I’m going to revisit the subject of smart meters from a perspective informed by both of those prior posts.  One of my goals is to use smart meters as a specific example of how, when making decisions about large-scale technology deployments, we can and should give more weight to the precautionary principle, especially when a technology’s benefits are as poorly understood and/or overstated as seems to be the case with today’s generation of smart meters.

As discussed in my earlier post on smart meters, their initial rollout (like much of the stimulus bill’s spending) was intended to invest in technologies and initiatives that had strategic value to our society, and to do so as quickly as possible (the federal government was, after all, trying desperately to revive demand following a global crisis that pushed our financial system to the brink of total collapse, and our economy into a deep recession).

Though this was a worthy goal, I’d argue that, in the case of smart meters (as well as electronic health records and other areas covered by the bill), the need to “spend fast” made the task of “spending wisely” very difficult and, perhaps in some cases, impossible.

To clarify this point, let’s briefly compare these two programs (smart meters and EHRs) to the broadband connectivity portion of the stimulus bill. Though the latter was not without some risk of misallocated investment, it involved mature and largely standardized technologies, and fairly straightforward and time-tested planning and execution steps.

In contrast, the investment in smart meters and EHRs involved inserting much less mature and standardized technologies into key interface points within essential infrastructure systems (e.g., electricity and healthcare) whose urgent need for fundamental and systemic change confronts a complex web of entrenched interests. For these programs, the potential risk of unintended negative consequencies is far more serious and difficult to predict than those involved in extending broadband networks to underserved areas.

Flying too fast and too blind?

As suggested by my earlier post, one of the risks associated with the current generation of wireless-networked smart meters relates to potential negative EMF impacts on health. My point here is not that these impacts are necessarily large and ominous, but that: 1) they are not well understood, especially when we consider the range of factors involved in the smart meter deployment (including, as discussed below, the configuration of devices in multiple dwelling units) and; 2) virtually no in-depth research on health risks was done prior to the nearly nationwide smart meter rollout now underway (in that earlier post I argued that such research was important to do and suggested one approach to funding it).

In the discussion that follows, I’m going to use my own evolution from barely-informed enthusiasm to somewhat-informed caution to make some key points about the smart meter deployment.

A few years ago I was living in California when San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), the local utility, began its smart meter rollout. I was initially pretty excited about it, since the move to a “smart grid” was something I’d thought was a good idea since doing some research and consulting in this area back in the 1990s. But, after the meters were installed, I was exposed to information (ranging from personal stories to scientific studies) that made me wonder if more attention to safety was warranted. This information also convinced me that more research should have been done before utilities started deploying RF-networked smart meters on a massive scale and in ways that may have been most convenient, inexpensive and profitable for them, but that might increase the risks of negative health impacts; or to put it another way, that the overly-hurried smart meter rollout was premature and an unnecessary and unwise violation of the precautionary principle.

My concerns were initially triggered by my own situation with regard to the smart meter rollout.

When it began, I was living in a duplex structure where SDG&E had installed two meters per home: an electric meter connected wirelessly to its companion gas meter and, via a mesh network, to other electric meters in the area. As it turned out, all four meters were on the outside of walls where my wife and I spent a lot of time (e.g., where our couch, bed and my wife’s desk were located). While I personally didn’t notice any health impacts from the meter installation, my wife started to complain of tinnitus (ringing in the ear) and a few other symptoms. So we began to look into the “opt-out” provision that was available thanks to a local grassroots movement that had pressured SDG&E and other California utilities into offering this option. We also started reading information published by anti-smart meter groups and talking to people claiming to have been harmed by exposure to the meters.

What I soon realized was that, even if we decided to pay the upfront and monthly opt-out fees, our neighbors’ meters might still be located next to our couch, bed and desk without us having any legal right to have them removed (since the meters were owned by SDG&E and were measuring usage for our neighbor’s home). As it turned out, our neighbors, who had two young children, were also concerned about potential health impacts (the meters were in an area where their kids liked to play outside). So we had all four meters removed. The result: both households had to pay upfront and monthly fees to return to the pre-smart meter status quo (the state PUC has since ruled that the monthly fee can only be charged for three years). Healthwise, my wife’s tinnitus symptoms seemed to improve somewhat, but didn’t go away.

Though this didn’t lead to me to any clearcut conclusions regarding health impacts, it did start me wondering whether the smart meter rollout might be premature from a public health perspective. This sense was intensified after hearing about individuals who reported even more noticeable and problematic health impacts after their smart meters were installed. Since these were typically in the form of personal stories (usually without clearly defined “controls”), they were (too often in my view) dismissed by smart meter supporters as unscientific and unworthy of consideration as indicators of potential health issues meriting further study.

As I was puzzling over this, I noticed a bank of roughly 20 pairs of electric/gas smart meters on the side of a nearby condo complex adjacent to a coffee house with outdoor seating very close to the bank of meters. It made me wonder about health impacts for residents of the apartments directly on the other side of the wall containing the meters, as well as the coffee shop’s staff and all those regular customers chatting with friends just a few feet from the bank of meters.

I later noticed a similar example at a different condo complex, this one restricted to those 55 and over, and inhabited by quite a few people in their 70s and 80s. In that complex I noticed that a bank of roughly 15 electric meters was just outside the homes of two individuals that appeared to be in their 80s and with frail health (which meant they probably spend most of their time at home and close to the bank of RF-networked meters).

These personal observations got me wondering whether these banks of smart meters located in multiple dwelling units (MDUs) might pose particular health risks for those living in close proximity to them, and that research focused on these kinds of network configurations should have been done prior to their deployment. But, as far as I could tell from some Google searches and document reviews, no such research has yet been done.

The more I thought about this, the more convinced I became that, from a public health perspective, the stimulus-funded rush to deploy the current generation of RF-networked smart meters was premature and perhaps harmful in ways that we still don’t understand and should be investigating.

Since—as explained in my earlier post—I’m also convinced that the overly hurried smart meter rollout is not very well suited to facilitate a rapid migration from carbon-based to renewable energy supply, I find myself thinking that the wisest—albeit politically difficult—decision would be to stop any further smart meter deployment until both aspects of these alleged deficiencies are carefully studied, including the health impacts related to deploying banks of EMF-radiating meters in MDUs, and impacts on especially vulnerable populations.

A different “smart grid” model

My earlier post discussed a paper by Tim Schoechle entitled “Getting Smarter About the Smart Grid,” and a related effort in Boulder, Colorado to create a municipal utility based on “a new model for a utility of the future” and much heavier reliance on distributed renewable energy generation.

As Schoechle explains:

[T]he idea is to provide energy services…at the best price and with the least environmental impact…based on distributed renewable energy [and] an “energy localization framework” that seeks to democratize energy decision-making so customers have more direct control over and involvement in energy decisions. This includes opportunities to invest in their long-term energy needs and to have a say in energy investments made on their behalf.

Schoechle also suggested that the term “smart grid” be replaced by “Intergrid,” a term coined by Jeremy Rifkin in his 2011 book The Third Industrial Revolution. As Schoechle explains:

Rifkin compares the grid with the Internet, where intelligence is distributed to the periphery. He envisions that in the future, people will be “…generating their own green energy in their homes, offices, and factories and sharing it with one another across intelligent distributed electricity networks—an Intergrid—just like people now create their own information and share it on the Internet” (p. 36). This transformation took place in telecommunications well over a decade ago, bringing competition and the creativity of the market to the telephone network and customer premises. Now it is the time for electricity to do the same.

A local opportunity?

As it turns out, the city of Lansing and parts of East Lansing, where Michigan State University and the Quello Center are located, are served by the Lansing Board of Water and Light (BWL), a 130-year-old municipal utility that has been conducting a small-scale smart meter trial and is planning to soon begin a five-year rollout across its service territory.

If possible, I’d recommend that BWL hold off on the broader deployment and take some additional time to consider: 1) the potential negative health impacts of that deployment, especially with regard to MDUs and impacts on vulnerable populations and; 2) the relevance to its plans of the arguments and alternative “smart grid” strategies presented in Schoechle’s paper, which I discussed in my earlier blog post.

While this would be an ambitious project for a single municipal utility to undertake, it might be more manageable if it also involved Michigan’s other utilities and relevant state agencies, and took advantage of the multidisciplinary expertise at MSU (including its Institute of Public Utilities), U of M, and the state’s other universities.

Though the Lansing area may not be able to match Boulder’s abundance of sunshine, it has the advantage of already being served by a community-oriented municipal utility that has been moving to expand its use of renewables, and whose tagline reads “Hometown People. Hometown Power.”

Perhaps with some “outside the smart-meter box” thinking, BWL, and perhaps other utilities in the state, can explore possibilities for moving more quickly and fully toward a renewables-based “Intergrid” model that is healthier for the environment, the customers and communities they serve, and their own long-term future.

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3 thoughts on “The Rush to “Smart” Meters: Maybe Not So Smart?”

  1. Deborah Cooney says:

    Thousands of people have reported injuries from Smart Grid radiation. We cannot, in good conscience, permit them to continue suffering. A moratorium on new installations will not help these people. We must dismantle the Smart Grid and reinstitute the safe analog grid. We must compensate the injured. We must hold the corporate criminals and corrupt public officials accountable for their actions. This would be the only just and reasonable response.

  2. Andrea Fabry says:

    I have been writing about environmental health ever since our family was made ill by a severe toxic exposure. Only in the last year have I become aware of the extreme health hazards connected with wireless technology. Thank you for writing about this and offering such valuable resources.

  3. Mary says:

    We agree. Thank You for posting!

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