by Russ Steele
We live in a messy world of radio frequency energy, from the AM stations we get the morning news, FM stations that fill our day with music and news, the wireless telephones that save us many steps everyday answering the phone, and of course, our indispensable cellphones and smart phones. And then there are those radio signals we do not think about that much, the satellite signals that bring us hundreds of TV channels to the corner of our house and GPS navigation signals that guide us from point A to point B.
If we live near an airport the radar signals guiding airplanes to safe landings sweep by the house, and in our case, the Beale AFB Pave Paws Radar we can hear on our police scanners. Other radio signals we hear on our scanner are the police, fire, public service, and ham radio users. Finally, let's not forget those WiFi signals that bring broadband to our laptops and Netflix movies to our Apple TV.
We already live in a messy radio frequency world, so why are people complaining about those tiny radio signals coming from the PG&E SmartMeters™? Why are these specific radio signals causing so much irrational concern among the folks in Marin County? These signals are only a very small addition to the total RF spectrum that surrounds us, unless we live in a metal faraday cage designed to keep out radio signals?
In California there are people who claim to be RF sensitive, especially to the SmartMeter™ signals. The most vocal are in Marin County. These complaints have become so pervasive that the Public Utility Commission has ordered PG&E to come up with an opt-out plan for people who do not want a SmartMeter™ at their homes. The Marin RF sensitive’s do not seem to be as concerned about all the other radio signals that pervade our world, just the PG&E SmartMeters™. Is this rational? Especially since some of the medical complaints started appearing in the press before the meter transmitters were turned on.
This is not to say the signals emitted by the smart meters are totally benign, they are not. The electric SmartMeters™ broadcast in the 902 to 928MHz band that was allocated by the FCC for industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) use. The gas SmartMeters™ operate in the 450-470 MHz frequency-band to communicate customer gas-usage to the PG&E billing computers. The FCC allows low power telemetry in the 450-470 MHz band, including your wireless home security systems and medical devices like those pendants seen on TV to call for help if you fall and cannot get up.
The ISM band was originally reserved for the use of radio frequency energy in industrial, scientific and medical purposes. Purposes other than communications. Applications in these bands include radio frequency heating, microwave ovens and medical diathermy machines. As a result, this portion of the spectrum does not require a license to use. Thus, many companies have used this free spectrum for garage door openers, wireless baby monitors, wireless phones, TV remote controls and WiFi routers. However, according to FCC rules communications equipment operating in these bands must accept any interference generated by ISM equipment, which appears to include SmartMeters™.
Here in lies the problem, as every home and business will have a SmartMeter™ that will be transmitting in the ISM band. They will be sending out radio pulses that are creating crackling sounds in baby monitors, and fooling alarm systems. Dealing with these problems could cause some irrational behavior.
Wireless Internet service providers like SmarterBroadband are also using the 902 - 928 MHz band to bring broadband to rural homes not served by DSL or Cable. They see the spectrum being saturated with SmartMeter™ noise, especially in areas where high gain distribution antennas will see thousands of meters. This interference affects the broadband signal, reducing delivery speeds.
However, under FCC rules it is up to the users to find solutions for this interference. PG&E points out that their one-watt transmitter only sends out data stream for about 2 to 20 milliseconds. These intermittent signals total about 45 seconds per day. For the other 23 hours and 59 minutes of the day, the meter is not transmitting any RF. This is rational, but hogging the band may not be good public relations. There are thousands of rural homes that depend on wireless broadband.
When every house in the neighborhood has a SmartMeter™ and they are all talking at different times, this can create an almost impossible environment to mitigate, as the meters use a frequency-hopping transmission technique across the band, making avoidance very difficult. Set frequency users like WiFi routers can not get away from the SmartMeter™ signals which are everywhere in the band. Some wireless Internet service providers think that PG&E and their network contractor Silver Spring Networks have essentially appropriated public frequency spectrum for their own use that had been allocated to all users.
There has been an ongoing fear that SmartMeters™ are inaccurate and are elevating energy costs for consumers. However, PUC sponsored studies say the meter are accurate. My own experience is that the meter has been monitoring our electrical usage accurately, at least when the power is off they are not recording usage when our generator is running. However, it is not clear how they are computing the charges when there are gaps in the data.
Early on a customer in Bakersfield discovered that PG&E was charging for service when his power was off. His SmartMeter™ was not transmitting a signal as it should, and so the utility's computer system just automatically filled in the blanks with a data patterned on his past power usage. This does not generate confidence in the PG&E billing system, and it is an indicator that users should use PG&E’s online tools to track their individual power usage and how the charges are computed.
Another rational issue for customers has been the security of SmartMeters™ and their ability to be hacked. I attended a “Tech Talk” lecture sponsored by the Sierra Commons on Smart Grid Technology and Network Management by Martin Kosina, who works for GridNet a SF startup and who supplies most of the smart grid devices for Australia and New Zealand. GridNet also sells security management systems. Martin’s presentation included how security systems can be implemented using digital signatures, digital certificates, and standard public encryption key systems to create a “chain of trust.” It does not mean the SmartMeters™ cannot be hacked. However, by using proven standard security systems it can raise the cost of hacking so high it exceeds the potential rewards for hackers. We have no idea if PG&E has implemented any of these “chain of trust” features, thus customer security concerns remains a rational issue.
Speaking of rewards. Who benefits the most from SmartMeters™? It appears to me that it is PG&E, with little customer benefit. A smart network gives PG&E a number of tools. Automating meter reading reduces the cost of people and transportation to read meters. It provides an advanced metering infrastructure to implement time of use pricing, automated billing and real time outage detection. The time of use pricing is very important to the accounting department, especially if you are reducing your energy use, they need some way to recover the lost revenue for the investors.
I was surprised to learn that if PG&E exceeds the median down time on a distribution network, the Public Utilities Commission can fine them. Thus, detecting an outage and taking rapid action has a built-in financial incentive. The ability to ping a smart meter and not getting a reply, tells systems managers that they have a problem and can send a team to investigate.
The other benefit is the ability to manage customer power usage when demand exceeds capacity. This becomes more valuable as California mandates more renewable power sources. When the sun does not shine and wind does not blow, PG&E will be unable to meet the demand. They are planning on using SmartMeters™ to shut off customer appliances like water heaters and turning up the air conditioning settings to reduce demand. This feature has the potential to produce irrational customer responses.
While rapid outage reporting can benefit PG&E customers, the most promoted benefit is the ability for customers to monitor and manage their power consumption. The social engineers have determined that if customers are given graphic presentation of their power usage, they will automatically try to reduce their consumption. While this is true of some users, I think that PG&E is over estimating the number of people who will log on and monitor power consumption, until the energy bills become more of the household budget and then customers will take some rational action.
New technology enables change and that can create rational and irrational fears in the PG& E customer base. When they worry about the radio signals causing health problems and the amount of existing RF energy in the environment, that is irrational. Concern over the increased RF noise and its impact on other ISM band users is a rational response. On the other hand, PG&E’s refusal to address issues with significant public relations risks seems to be a bit irrational. Customer concern over network security is a rational issue and needs to be addressed by PG&E.
From my perspective, PG&E needs to do a better job explaining how SmartMeters™ function, the benefits to PG&E customers, and quickly address compatibility issues will other ISM band users.
Russ Steele is a freelance writer and blogs on local issues at NC Media Watch.