Are Smart Meters Dangerous?

SmartMeter on the outside of a home in CincinnatiSmart meters send information about your power usage digitally back to the utility company — but not all home owners are fond of the devices. Image: Liz Foreman for HouseLogic

A home owner in Texas pulls out a handgun and tells a smart meter installer to back away from her house. He does.

A couple in British Columbia covers their already-installed smart meter with a metal hood to block its radio transmissions. The company that makes the hoods is doing a brisk business.

In Maine, a smart meter opponent brings a lawsuit against the utility company that wants to install the new technology on his house. He wins his case.

These are just a few of the hundreds of incidents I’ve seen in the media lately about the digital devices utility companies are installing on customers’ homes all over North America (and other continents).

Utility companies say smart meters will reduce stress on an overworked electrical grid and help limit power outages. They point out that more efficient use of power reduces the need for more power plants and helps keep rates low.

Smart meters take the place of your meter reader, digitally sending info about your electricity consumption back to the utility. The info gathered by the meters also lets consumers monitor their own power use, adjusting consumption so they can run power-hungry appliances when rates are low. For example, by turning on the clothes dryer late at night instead of the middle of the day.

But many consumers aren’t convinced their best interests are being served.

“The utility companies are using smart meters as a way to intrude into our homes,” says Kristine Tanzillo of Myrtle Springs, Texas. “There is no proof that energy costs will be reduced by these meters.”

So Why the Outrage?

Basically, the hubbub swirls around three issues:

1. Smart meters aren’t safe. They emit radio frequency energy that some say is a health risk, especially those with electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS).

2. They’re an invasion of privacy. Because the meters record and broadcast the slightest changes in household energy consumption, they can pinpoint when houses are empty, even when occupants go to bed.

3. Smart meters save consumers money. That doesn’t wash with some home owners who claim their utility bills have tripled since the installation of the wireless meters.

All that’s just skimming the surface. A smart meter argument can get as twisty as an old garden hose.

It’s hard to understand the health issue, for example, without some knowledge of radio frequency energy, smart meter pulse rates, and causal effects of EHS. And even if you do, somebody in the smart meter debate is bound to say you’ve got it all wrong.

“We have put a sign and a lock on our meter box to prevent the installation of a smart meter,” says Ingrid Perri, a naturopath in Australia. “I believe they are detrimental to health. A smart meter at my house would be right behind our heads as we sleep, radiating into our brains.”

That’s a non-issue, insists the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative, a non-profit group that supports smart grid technology. In their publication, “Radio Frequency and Smart Meters,” the SGCC says, “Smart meters don’t produce any negative health impacts. They emit a low level of radio frequency energy that’s both FCC-approved and lower than the level of RF energy emitted by many other devices that are used daily by millions of people.”

Even if you’re inclined to wear a lead loin cloth and tin foil hat, the reality is that smart meters are already everywhere. To date, about 27 million of the technologically advanced metering systems are installed on homes and apartment buildings, and millions more are scheduled.

Home Owners: Don’t Tread on Us!

And now we’re at the heart of the issue.

The fact is that utility companies misjudged consumer backlash. They failed to understand the passion that home owners have for their personal property, and they didn’t account for the sense of violation that home owners might feel when a power company employee comes strolling into their yards, unbidden, and proceeds to install a device they didn’t request.

“It’s a search without a warrant,” insists consumer advocate Jerry Day.

In certain parts of the country, apparently, the law agrees.

In Maine, home owner Ed Friedman of Bowdoinham brought a lawsuit against Maine’s Public Utility Commission and his local utility, Central Maine Power, charging that smart meters are an invasion of privacy and may cause health problems.

Speaking to the MIT Technology Review, Freidman summed up his sentiments with simple eloquence: “My home is my castle.”

Although the Maine Supreme Court didn’t draw conclusions about smart meter technology, it did say that Maine’s Public Utility Commission had failed to adequately address health and safety issues before authorizing installation of smart meters.

The decision is somewhat moot, given the fact that more than 600,000 smart meters were already installed in the state. Oops!

Utility Mea Culpa — for a Fee

To deal with the cat-out-of-the-bag issue, many utility companies in several states are offering customers an opt-out on smart meter installation. For a fee, utilities will allow you to keep your old meter. The fee covers the cost of having a meter read manually, and defrays the cost of reinstalling traditional meters for customers who want their old metering ways back.

In California, for example, customers of Pacific Gas & Electric will have to fork over a $75 initial fee and a $10 monthly fee. Of PG&E’s 5.4 million customers, about 27,000 have taken the opt-out option.

To some, that’s unfair. “Customers shouldn’t have to pay more if they don’t want a smart meter in their home,” says David Bakke, editor at Money Crashers Personal Finance.

Meanwhile, Maine’s Supreme Court decision has sobered several utility companies.

In the Midwest, MidAmerican Energy Company and Alliant Energy have delayed deployment of smart meters until concerns about excessive billings are resolved. Connecticut regulators have put off installation of 1.2 million smart meters while the state develops an acceptable smart meter policy that addresses the issues.

Maybe the whole controversy is a good thing. You’ve got to admire an issue that transcends political boundaries to unite groups as disparate as the Tea Party faithful and environmental extremists.

Me? I’m all for more studies to determine the health effects of radio frequency emissions from smart meters. At the same time, I like the idea that a meter reader will no longer be tromping through my rhododendrons to record my monthly energy usage while maybe sneaking a quick peek through my office window.

I wonder what they’d think if they could see me in my tin foil hat?

Would you allow a smart meter on your house? Are the concerns myth or reality — or does it even matter?