by Russ Steele
There is growing resistance to SmartMeters all across the county, with people worried about health effects from radiation, increased energy costs, impact of appliance changes, invasion of privacy, remote shutdowns and possible uninsurable consequences. I will be examining each of these individually and then tell you a story about how we were helped by having a SmartMeter, which enabled us to secure a PG&E billing adjustment.
First let’s review how smart meters work, as it will help us understand some of the above issues. [Note PG&E uses SmartMeter, for ease of reading I will use smart meter unless specifically referring to the PG&E meter]
SmartMeters measure your energy usage and send that information back to PG&E by wireless signals, instead of a utility meter reader coming to your property to manually read the electric and gas meters monthly. Smart meters are just replacements for the older ‘spinning dial’ or analog meters, but with a twist or two.
In California these smart meters are not optional, and PG&E is installing them even when occupants do not want them, as these smart meters are vital to PG&E’s efforts to load balance a system which will become highly dependent on renewable energy sources. PG&E cannot turn on renewables like they can hydro or gas fired boilers as the demand goes up, so they need a way to reduce the demand by turning off appliances in your home.
For smart meters to monitor and effectively control energy usage via a wireless communication system, you must be willing to install power monitors with transmitters in your home. At our house we get letters from PG&E offering us money to install a thermostat that can remotely control our air conditioning system. This thermostat would have a radio transmitter to communicate with our SmartMeter in the garage, and then leaps to the PG&E control center via a wireless network. Our answer was 'no way!'
Right now it is just the AC thermostat, but it could be any energy- using device in our home, washing machines, clothes dryers, dishwashers, flat screen TV, water heater, etc.. Over 90 appliance manufacturers have signed up to the Zigbee Alliance that makes chip and circuit boards which monitor appliance power usage and can transmit the data to a smart meter. Many companies in the alliance have agreed to put these monitoring transmitters in their appliances when they are manufactured. These chips can automatically create a mesh network in your home, each sending information via wireless radio frequency signals back to a smart meter.
Each monitor and transmitter chip handles a separate appliance. A typical kitchen and laundry may have a dozen power transmitters in total. The dirty little secret is, if these power transmitters are not installed by the homeowner, they may soon be mandated via federal legislation, requiring all new appliances to have power monitors and transmitters built into them. Studies have shown there may be little or no energy information reported or energy savings until all homes in the system are participants in this scheme.
While it is now voluntary to have monitor devices in your appliances, when California utilities have fully converted to 33% renewable energy, and they are having problems managing their delivery grid without an ability to switch on and off domestic appliances, these control devices will be mandated by the Legislature, with support from the Public Utility Commission. That is unless the Feds have not already taken care of the problem.
It is this mandated RF environment that is of concern to most people who are resisting the installation of smart meters, as they are concerned about the health, privacy and security issues which I mentioned above.
PG&E says that their SmartMeters are “in compliance with FCC public safety limits”. However, the RF reports indicate that the smart meter will produce over 300 microwatts/centimeter squared near the meter, and this will produce elevated RF both inside and outside the home. Chronic exposure to radio frequency and microwave radiation is still considered a potential health risk, and studies continue at National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and at the World Health Agency to determine actual health risks.
While one smart meter may not be a problem, what happens when every appliance in your home is reporting energy use every 15 minutes. That can be a lot of RF energy floating around your kitchen and utility room. These bursts will occur both day and night, perhaps several times a minute, as multiple appliances report their status. Some people are reported to be extra sensitive to smart meter RF, but these same people seem to be fine with portable phones, cellphones and microwave ovens.
Increased Utility Costs
There have been widespread reports of excessive charges, due to malfunctioning smart meters. In Bakersfield, CA, where PG&E started installing the first smart meters, more than 100 people
attended a meeting held by State Senator Dean Florez to complain about absurd electric bills. Those with new smart meters had bills 200-400% higher, with no increase in power use as compared to the same months of the previous year. A class action lawsuit was filed in Bakersfield, CA because of these numerous consumer complaints.
Tests by independent agencies have given the SmartMeter a clean bill on accuracy issues. It appears that part of the issue was lack of communication, the rates were being increased at the same time the SmartMeters were being installed, making year-to-year cost comparison useless.
On the other hand, we used our smart meter to get PG&E to adjust our bill. We were gone on a cross-country trip for six weeks, yet our PG&E bill was about the same as if we were home. I logged on to the PG&E site and downloaded the smart meter data, and it showed a large drop in our gas and electricity usage over the six-week period we were gone. We called PG&E and they agreed to adjust our bill.
Appliance Change Out
It is unknown how many appliance manufacturers have started installing the control chips in their appliances. We recently bought a new LG refrigerator. LG is a signatory of the Zigbee Alliance, but our new refrigerator does not have one of the control chips, at least none are mentioned in specifications, and by law all RF devices must be listed on the appliance specification sheet.
It is important to check the label before buying a new appliance. If it has a chip it will try to join the PG&E SmartMeter network once power is applied.
Invasion of Privacy
The use of wireless networks to relay energy information leaves open the potential for misuse of personal data, billing and usage information, and other private information. Privacy breaches
have already been documented in Canada, and open source tools are being developed to sniff out smart meter network vulnerability, thus enabling criminals to exploit data transmitted to the network. Our SmartMeter reported to PG&E that our energy use had dropped during our vacation. A burglar could have exploited this information, knowing we were not home. It is like advertising to criminals with wireless detection equipment that you are not home.
Remote shut down
The smart meters have the ability to shut off the house power remotely. If you do not pay your bill, some computer at PG&E can decide it is time to turn off your power. For some that may only result in some spoiled food in the refrigerator, but those who depend on the power for their medical devices, a remote shut down can be life-threatening. So far I could not find any incidents where PG&E did a remote cut-off which impacted a person's health.
When buying an appliance we always look for the UL label which is certification by the Underwriters Laboratory it is safe to use in your home. UL is a certification that is required under the state electrical code for all electrical appliances and equipment within your home. But, it was recently discovered in a public hearing by the Capitola City Council that the smart meters being used in California are not UL Certified.
This revelation came after Council member Michael Termini, who is an electrician by trade, asked PG&E about the certification. A PG&E staff member fetched a smart meter and the Council spent several minutes unsuccessfully trying to locate the UL symbol on the meter. This can have some implications for home owners with household insurance policies that stipulate use of UL devices.
Your household insurance may have a clause that limits the companies liability in case of the claim made in response to the failure of a non-UL-listed device. What happens if your smart meter fails, is hacked, or explodes, which some have, and your home is damaged. Your insurance may not cover the damage. Check your insurance policy for a UL-certified appliance use clause. You may be more vulnerable than you imagine.
Relief on the horizon
There may be some relief in sight. In a landmark case, Skelton, Taintor & Abbott in Maine secured a decision that will benefit utility customers throughout the country. The chair of the firm's energy law group successfully convinced the Maine Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) to find that it was an unjust and unreasonable practice for Central Maine Power Company to refuse residential and small commercial customers to opt-out of the power companies smart meter program.
The case has been followed by other Public Utilities Commissions and utility experts around the country, and will serve as precedent for others in the determination of how to resolve what has become a growing debate about customer choice and smart meters.
In March, PG&E filed a motion with the California PUC to let customers opt-out of their SmartMeter program by turning off the radio frequency transmitter. The California Public Utilities Commission gave PG&E until the fall of 2012 to work out an acceptable plan. By next year property owners who don't want PG&E's SmartMeter in their homes or businesses will someday have a choice, the question is what will your choice be and how much will it cost you.
If enough people opt-out, the potential utility company cost savings will never be realized, and PG&E will lose a vital tool for implementing the 33% renewable energy mandate. Send a message, Opt-out!
Russ Steele is a freelance writer who blogs at The Next Grand Minimum.