Addressing Peoples' Concerns About Smart Meters

When we publish articles on smart meters, we inevitably receive comments from people who are concerned about privacy (what utilities will do with their data), health issues related to electromagnetic fields, and whether the data will be used to push through rate hikes. 

In the US, their use has become controversial and there’s been so much push back from customers that utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric Co. offer customers the option to opt out.

In North America, penetration rates of smart meters reached 39% of households in 2012, according to Navigant Research. While nearly one in six customers site concerns, few people opt out.  Worldwide, 313 million are installed, expected to rise to nearly 1.1 billion in 2022.

Smart meters provide the foundation for a smart grid, which enables 2-way digital communication with customers on energy use and choice of rates, identifies outages faster and restores electricity through "self-healing" features. 

Smart Meter

This article addresses privacy and health concerns.

by Jeff Spross

As smart meters proliferate across the country, concerns are bubbling up that their transmissions could affect Americans’ health or privacy. The Maine Public Utilities Commission is holding hearings to hash out the matter on October 30 and 31.

But the case for privacy fears, while real, is based on mixed circumstances and rapidly changing policies. The health fears revolve around the supposed physical effects the radiofrequency radiation (RFR) – a fancy name for the signals released by everything from wireless routers to cell phones – put out by smart meters could have on the human body. The evidence for this second concern is essentially nonexistent.

Ionizing radiation, like what’s used by x-ray machines or caused by nuclear fallout, can actually tear electrons out of our body’s atoms. That causes radiation sickness and alters our chemical make-up, which can lead to cancer. Non-ionizing radiation from common electronics won’t do that, and studies of links between cancer rates and cell phone use found either no linkage, or in rare instances a linkage that wasn’t replicable by further research.

But if it comes in short enough wavelengths and high enough frequencies, RFR can heat biological tissue – think of a microwave. It’s just that the RFR from smart meters is neither ionizing nor high frequency and short wavelength. As it stands, your average smart meter emits less RFR than a cell phone, and is well below the regulatory limit set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

A second issue is what’s called electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS). This a supposed reaction to RFR, ionizing or not, that results in allergy-like symptoms including nausea, rashes, irregular heartbeat, weakness, chest pains, etc. A very, very small portion of the population appears to be affected by EHS, and there’s actually a small community of sufferers in the town of Green Bank, where most forms of RFR have been banned to avoid interfering with the nearby National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

The problem is that while the symptoms may be real enough, researchers have been unable to establish a link between them and RFR despite many attempts. In fact, tests reveal EHS sufferers "almost always report symptoms when they know [RFR] is on, and not when they know it is off," according to James Rubin, a psychologist at King’s College in London who’s gone through the literature. But when participants are incorrectly told when the RFR is on or off, "they report symptoms to the same extent in both conditions." This suggests the cause is psychogenic.

The final concern is privacy. As the Congressional Research Service put it, "Data recorded by smart meters must be highly detailed, and, consequently, it may show what individual appliances a consumer is using. The data must also be transmitted to electric utilities – and possibly to third parties outside of the smart grid – subjecting it to potential interception or theft as it travels over communications networks and is stored in a variety of physical locations."

The American Civil Liberties Union has noted at least one instance in which major California utilities expressed concerns with the amount of smart meter data that could be handed over to law enforcement, for example. The ACLU recommends that subpoenas be presented to customers themselves rather than utilities, that customer consent be required to share data, and that smart meter installation should be based on an opt-in rather than an opt-out model.

At least part of the problem is the sheer newness of the field. Laws across federal and state governments, as well as municipalities and individual utility policies, are still crystalizing. And some companies fail to take basic precautions like sending information with proper encryption. Presumably these are the sorts of problems that will get solved as the technology is more widely adopted and standards are converged on. Other suggestions include delinking data from identities, so mass data could be used for social and economic research, but wouldn’t be attributable to individuals. And at least some utilities are already tackling these problems.


This story first appeared on Climate Progress:

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Comments on “Addressing Peoples' Concerns About Smart Meters”

  1. Bob Green

    The main potential concern that I see in regards to privacy, which is not mentioned here is that once the utility companies have your usage data, if there was ever a need to restrict or regulate usage, then the utility company via the smart meter could shut off or restrict your power and/or power usage if you are using too much of it. This is a potential future concern since we don’t have such issues now, but its certainly a possibility in the future, especially as populations continue to grow and power usage demand also increases. I look forward to your thoughts on this, as most are not aware of thinking in this regards.


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