Community Issues

Smart Meters


Background

For the past century, the power companies have had to pay an army of people to visit every house every month to read meters, gas and electric. In Kingsville, they have to drive to every house. It is obvious that this adds significantly to the cost of service, and it also leads to errors. For the past several decades they have been installing RF-based equipment on the meters, especially if the meter is indoors, which allows them to drive past the houses and remotely read the meters. Since this equipment was designed many years ago, it must be presumed that it is not very secure in today's environment, but then, the data obtainable from it is no different than would be available to anyone reading the meter outside a house. And there is no easy way to upgrade every meter as technology advances.

Now, BGE, and other electricity providers, are installing a "smart gird", which includes "smart meters" which are able to register usage more accurately and more cheaply.

The smart meters not only allow elimination of the expense and error-prone human reader, but they allow for continuous reading or, rather, reading over smaller periods of time. Instead of getting one large number of kilowatt-hours once a month, the meter can record and report usage every hour or less. This allows better analysis of one's electricity usage and will allow time-dependent billing in the future, to help people save money. Because of the high demand at certain times, which drives the need for additional, expensive generation capability, it could help tremendously if higher per kilowatt-hour rates could apply during these times, to encourage people to schedule things like drying clothes during off-hours. Such time-dependent rates have applied to large business users for years. Of course, any such rate structure must be approved by the PSC.

Several other things that a Smart Meter could do to the great benefit of the customer and their safety is to measure the instantaneous peak usage, which would provide an early warning of wiring problems in the house, and potentially prevent a fire. They also can provide faster reporting of outages.

The opponents of smart meters have come up with some pretty interesting arguments against this technological advance. One of the groups formed to oppose this technological advance is Maryland Smart Meter Awareness (MSMA). Their claims are summarized in a brochure called "Smart Meter Facts", which should more correctly be called "Facts and Mostly Fallacies about Smart Meters". When given a careful and common-sense examination, most supposed issues and concerns are shown to be nonsense, so one has to wonder what this group really doesn't like about them.

Following is a list of the claims and the reality.

Claim Reality Solutions
(see list below)

1. "Three attorneys general (Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan) have filed objections stating that they are too expensive and consumers will never see any real saving."

It needs to be verified if these 3 have withdrawn their "objections" (or others have jumped on the band-wagon to appease their constituents). Of course, it is impossible to know that consumers will not see any savings before the technology is even deployed and all the future-possible programs that use it are deployed. It is quite easy to see how they will save money, just as the current voluntary program to cycle off air conditioners does. It is more likely that the actions of these Attorneys General is simply a ploy to get the electric company to reveal more information (or to enhance their future political aspirations).

The Tea Party goes so far as to exaggerate this into saying that the Attorneys General opposition is "based on the proven increase in electricity costs" (see next claim).

 

2. "Ratepayers are reporting bill increases."

Some customers "reporting bill increases" means nothing. Ask anyone on the street and they will tell you that their electric bill has gone up (or anything else you ask about) because it's what we are constantly told is happening so we believe it. Ask them what their bill actually is and how it compares with pre-Smart Meter bills and you'll get a different story. The reality is found in the rates as approved by the PSC. There is no evidence of any rate increase that applies to those with a Smart Meter.

Educate people

3. "Smart Meters provide the utilities with a tool to control our energy use during peak times, saving themselves money, not the ratepayers."

This argument is pure nonsense. There is no evidence currently that this tool will be used to "control" anything. To do so would require specific PSC approval, obviously in the face of very stiff opposition from everyone if it were to be done without the customer's approval. And it would requirement the consumer to voluntarily pruchase "smart appliances" that would let themselves be controlled by BGE's "smart meter".

Because of the regulation of power companies, if they save money, the savings end up being passed onto the customer. In fact, the argument is directly contradictory to the statement in the next point that claims that "rebate and time of day pricing" do not pass savings onto the ratepayers. These programs, by their very definition, are providing savings to the customer.

The principal opponent, right after stating that smart meters will not save anyone money but the power company, made reference to "economic incentives" to allow appliances to be controlled. If "economic incentives" does not mean saving money, then it is unknown what it means. It is impossible to understand why MSMA makes this claim, which is absurd.

Educate people

4. "Through incentive programs (rebates), time of use pricing (higher rates during peak times), and remote power rationing, utilities can increase their profits while passing on the enormous costs of this expensive roll out onto ratepayers." and they can control the individual appliances in your home or even turn off the electricity to your whole house.

One claim is repeatedly made as being a problem - that the meter allows BGE to turn off all the power to your house. The PSC, in its order 81637, did, in fact, require that all smart meters of 200 amps or less have a remote connect and disconnect capability. The point is to be able to terminate service more easily, and turn it back on if an error were made. Certainly, all the administrative and legal restrictions remain in place, the same as they are today for analog meters which require a visit to turn off. This might also allow the meter to acts as a circuit breaker, turning off power if it exceeds the safety rating of the meter or the electric service in order to avoid a fire. If one cannot trust these procedures, then they should move to the woods and get "off the grid".

Besides, BGE can already turn off power to whole neighborhoods. It's called a rolling-blackout. This new technology is intended to prevent BGE from ever having to resort to such draconian measures in the event of a severe power shortage.

None

They also argue that the meter can control your refrigerator and other individual appliances to turn them off. The brochure even uses the word "rationing" to incite readers. In fact, it may be assumed that one of the purposes of this new technology is to eventually allow such control of selected appliances under extreme conditions (certainly only for those customers who select this cost-savings plan, just as we can do today without a Smart Meter). Again, this is for the exact purpose of avoiding the need to "ration" (meaning denying power to those who need it).

New "smart appliances" are being sold which provide for wireless communication to control them, such as from your Smart Phone or via the Internet using the WiFi in your house. (Why anyone would need to change the temperature setting in their refrigerator remotely is beyond comprehension.) This obviously should raise severe security and privacy concerns from everyone due to the general lack of security which individuals have in their non-professionally installed home networks. That is the issue to be tackled, not the meter that may be able to communicate with the appliances, on a system that is set up by a professional. Even without the meter, anyone could drive past your house and hack into your appliance if it is not secured, which most would not be, just as many WiFi routers are not today.

Even when describing this ability to turn off appliances, the opponents readily admit that it would only be used when this option is chosen by the customer. That is, it is choice made by the customer to save money, the same as the current program to turn off air-conditioners (without a Smart meter).

D.1, D.2

Of course this is an expensive program to roll-out, just as is building new power plants. One has to accept the presumption that BGE has carefully analyzed the expense/benefit equation and would not do it unless it was the right thing to do for themselves and their customers. (One needs to remember that BGE is not a charity, but a company that must also show a profit for its stockholders.)

None

To fully see the absurdity of the arguments, one only needs to think about the statement included in their own brochure: "Through incentive programs (rebates) ... utilities can increase their profits while passing on the enormous costs..."

None possible when people make such outlandish arguments.

5. "Business and households who cannot lower usage during peak times - i.e. retirees, disabled Americans, individuals using medical equipment, telecommuters, home businesses, and stay at home moms - can expect to pay even more for electricity."

When all else fails, mention how this will impact "retirees, disabled Americans, stay at home moms" and ignore the benefits it will have for everyone who voluntarily signs up for the program, just as they do today for "Peak Rewards". In fact, the approval of Smart Meters does not approve any time-of-day pricing plan, it only allows it to be requested in the future. That will be a later argument in which it would be a valid concern that application of time-of-day pricing (to those who select it) should not result in increased rates to those who do not select it. However, it should be obvious that everyone would select it, and the reduced overall price, once they understand the result (and in the absence of some do-good organization who fights it without justification).

The PSC, in Order 84925, has already indicated their support of "Dynamic Pricing Rebates", which will always be approved through "future tariff filings".

D.2

6. "Smart Meters are not ANSI or UL certified".

The reality is that ANSI does not certify anything. ANSI (or, more correctly, standards committees accredited by ANSI) writes industry standards, which, in the case of meters, might address the physical layout of the plugs, safety issues, how they communicate to other appliances, etc. ANSI does not certify anything, not even compliance with the standard. There is really no advantage to the customer if the meters are compliant with a standard.

(It should be noted here that the author of this web site participated in ANSI accredited telecommunications standard committees for many years, including one dealing with technology for meter and alarm reading over telephone lines.)

None

UL may test a device and "list" it as having been tested, and it has a program to certify products for safety. At present, while consumer equipment must be UL listed, the power company's equipment apparently does not, as generally industrial equipment does not. However, many references indicate that the meters are UL tested.

A.1

7. "Smart Meters have been associated with over 900 fires".

While there have been a few documented cases of "smart meter" installations overheating in Pennsylvania, it's not because they are "smart". It was reported that PECO has identified the faulty meters from Sensor and stopped using them. In fact, a Sensus filing states that "the industry experienced a small number of overheating instances ... in all these cases, the investigations conducted showed that the meter was not the cause, rather, the causes were the meter box and wiring issues". And it also notes that such events have always occurred with "dumb" meters. Sensus further describes how a temperature threshold triggers an alarm to the service provider and a second threshold disconnects service (in the smart meter), thus preventing a fire, something a "dumb" meter could never do.

BGE uses GE and Landis+Gyr meters, and reports that there have been no cases of heat-related issues.

It is questionable whether any of the reported cases of smart meters being "associated" with fires are really the fault of the smart meter. Note that the brochure says "associated with", not "caused by". It is more likely that they are the result of electrical faults in the house or faulty meter boxes (as Sensor stated).

For example, older houses were provided with 100 amp service. New houses, and old ones that have been retrofitted, are provided with 200-amp service (which is supposed to be indicated by a gray cable coming into the meter). In either case, the first thing that should be in the house is a single 100- or 200-amp circuit breaker. Besides protecting the wiring in the house, this also protects the meter. There are certainly cases in which someone has installed unauthorized wiring inside the house so that more than the 100 or 200 amps can be drawn through the meter. Clearly, if this exceeds the rating of the meter, it might overheat.

The cases detailed on-line concerning fires seem to all be related to incorrect installation by an unqualified person which resulted in overheating of faulty base plugs, thus would be just as likely to occur if a "dumb" meter were replaced with another. While a "dumb" meter would be unaware that overheating was occurring, the latest models of "smart meters" can detect overheating, report this to BGE, and even turn off power to avoid a catastrophic fire. Thus, "smart meters" can be much safer.

A.2, B.1, B.2

8. "Shortly following Smart Meter installation, customers have reported incidents of wiring and appliance damages."

There is simply no physical way in which a meter outside the house can cause wiring damages inside the house. Such reports, if even true, are obviously random occurrences, which people are conveniently blaming on the recent meter replacement. The world is full of blamers and insurance scams.

None

The replacement of a Smart Meter, when the technician can't get into your house to properly turn off appliances, is done by pulling the old meter and plugging in a new one while the power is on so there may be a large current flow. The problems with this are:

  1. Some appliances, especially older refrigerators, can be damaged by this. Any time the power is tuned off and back on quickly, there is a probability that some refrigerators could be damaged. That's why new refrigerators are made with a delay circuit to help protect them from damage during a short power outage.
  2. It's also possible that, while trying to plug in the new meter, the technician has trouble and repeatedly makes and breaks the contact, thus aggravating the problem.
  3. As MSMA correctly points out, this "hot switching" also damages the contacts in the meter box and probably violates the electrical code. However, the same problem exists with replacement of a "dumb" meter.

B.2

9. The radio waves are dangerous. "Smart Meters pulse RF radiation anywhere between 14,000 to 190,000 times each day". One opponent even stated "they contain radiation".

Note that the arguments use the word "radiation" to play on the fears of those who grew up during the Cold War of the 50's.

They further make the point that the meter "pulses" RF. While the science indicates that "pulsed" RF may be more hazardous than continuous, sine-wave RF (such as comes from AM radio stations), the reality is that more and more applications now use "pulsed", or rather, non-continuous RF, one reason being to reduce the overall power. All cells phone now do, and they certainly "pulse" RF many more times than a meter does.

While everyone should be concerned about the amount of radio waves in our environment, the thing to really worry about is the strength of the signals, that is, those sources that are very near to us - cell phones, wireless routers, wireless keyboards, etc. The strength of the radio signal deceases with the cube of the distance, thus, a person twice the distance gets 1/8 of the energy. So, if you are worried about the "radiation" from your smart meter, don't hug it!

Pass out tin-foil helmets.

If the opponents are so sure of this danger, they should have performed measurements, or referenced published studies of Smart Meters and other devices that we accept in our environment every day for comparison (as BGE has done multiple times). It must be suspected that the opponents have not done this because the actual data would clearly show that there is no issue, with the levels from the electric meter being so far below everything else that it is insignificant. Click for actual data (scroll to page 49).

Summary of measured levels

To put it into perspective, BGE's submission shows that the total RF exposure over a 20-year life of a meter would be "significantly less" than from a single 45-minute cell phone call.

Publish the numbers!

10." Is the radiation harmful? Independent studies - not industry funded - say YES."

For every study that concluded that "radiation" is harmful, at least one can be found that shows otherwise. (Once again, the word "radiation" is used to scare people.) It's been an ongoing industry issue for decades, especially since the advent of the cell phone. It should be noted that, at the present time, the Maryland Public Service Commission says, in response to MSMA's "grave concern", that testimony has found "RF emission from smart meters to be lower than that emitted by microwaves, cell phones, and several other common household appliances" and concludes that "we have not found convincing evidence of harmful effects". Yet, they still say that "we acknowledge a good-faith belief on the part of some ratepayers to the contrary", so they are temporarily allowing people to opt out. (Order 85294, Jan 7, 2013) (That statement could be paraphrased as "we recognize that there are some Chicken-Littles in the world who need to go around with a tin-foil helmet on...".)

Pass out tin-foil helmets.

The referenced web site contains a good list of studies done around the world on various sources of RF, including cell phones and towers, for various signal strengths, frequencies, and types. What is needed is for the Smart Meter opponents to reveal the actual signal strengths and frequencies that these meters emit, so that comparisons can be made with the research, rather than just vague implications that this research somehow applies. Note the PSC's statement that the emission is "lower". Click for actual data.

Get the real numbers!

11. "Upon installation of Smart Meters, people report headaches, ringing ears, dizziness, etc, etc, etc."

People are always developing various health issues. Without a controlled test, extraneous claims do not prove anything other than that maybe someone needs to do a controlled test. If 100,000 new Smart Meters are installed, it stands to reason that a small number of people will shortly thereafter complain of these problems and try to associate them with the recent installation, especially if they have been convinced by groups like MSMA that they should expect these effects. The same would happen with installing 100,000 anythings.

None needed.

12. "The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) recommends a moratorium on Smart Meters based on double-blinded, placebo controlled research of RF ..."

In reality, the AAEM statement, issued April 12, 2012 states: "AAEM calls for immediate caution regarding Smart Meter installation". The use of the word "moratorium" by MSMA is an attempt at over-kill for those who do not bother to read the actual source document. In fact, since the study referenced concerning the "double-blinded, placebo controlled research" was published in 1991, it is likely unrelated to whatever the Smart Meters are doing.

None

The AAEM goes so far in their scare tactics to state that "The World Health Organization has classified RF emission as a group 2B carcinogen". "Group 2B" means "possibly carcinogen to humans", as opposed to Group 2A which is "probably carcinogen", and Group 1 which definitely is. This puts RF right up there as a potential danger with aloe vera leaves and nickel.

13. "Many prestigious medical institutions, scientists, and experts ... have issued similar warnings of negative health effects..."

The statement here is without specifics, so is impossible to address. Many others have concluded that they are safe. For example, the California Council on Science and Technology released a report in 2011 which concluded that Smart Meters result in less RF exposure than microwaves and far less than cell phones.

BGE also reported that they have 637,816 electric and 473,972 gas Automatic Meter Reading radios in their system which have been in operation for many years without any reported RF health effects. This experience itself should suffice to prove the absence of a problem.

?

14. "Smart Meters have been shown to interfere with vital medical equipment such as pacemakers."

It has been known for decades that various RF emitters can affect pacemakers, so this should be nothing new. Those with pacemakers are warned not to stand by a microwave oven or to hold their cell phone near their pacemaker. If the science and technology indicates a need, it would make sense to adopt special provisions for those with pacemakers.

Tell people with pace-makers to stay away from the smart meter.

15. "Smart meters transmit personal information about our daily activities and are, in effect, a new form of surveillance. Anyone with access (authorized or not) [to Smart Meters] can tell whether you are home; what appliances you are using; whether or not your home alarm system is on; or what medical equipment you are using". Some unauthorized person (or the government) can read the data in the meter.

It is arguable whether electricity usage, especially if limited to being aggregated to reasonable periods of time, is really "personal information". At present, anyone could watch your electric meter located outside your house and get this information. Also, many meters (electric, gas, and water) located inside houses have already been outfitted with wireless readers, which likely have very poor security. It must be believed that the Smart Meter will provide better security

They even claim that some law-enforcement agencies have used a subpoena to get the data from the meter to prove that someone was not home in order to debunk their claim that they were home when a crime was committed.

None

There is no way electrically that the meter can really determine, from changes in the electricity use, that someone is home in the middle of the night. It could make no more than a guess. The opponents have argued that the meter can tell when your refrigerator goes on, as if the occupant getting up in the middle of the night for a glass of milk is the only thing that causes the refrigerator to come on. The variation in electricity use could just as well be the water pump or dehumidifier going on, and the water pump may come on due to a leak in the system.

While complete data (which the meters don't record anyway) could provide a hint that someone is home, it is physically impossible to prove the opposite, that they are not home.

The claim that the meter can tell "whether your home alarm system is on" is just pure bunk.

None

Many of the concerns raised would only be an issue if some unauthorized person could gain access to the smart meter, and use that access to read out the data or to control your appliances. It would be easier for them to directly access the "smart" appliance which is unlikely to have decent security. Therefore, the only valid issue is whether or not the security mechanisms of the meter are adequate. In Maryland, the testimony before the PSC by BGE convinced them that it is adequate. Of course, this should be constantly monitored as advances are made in technology and peoples' ability to get around safeguards.

C.3

The government does not need to read the data from the meter. If authorized by the appropriate process, they get the data directly from BGE. This is no different than at present - it would simply contain more detail.

None

16. "There is no law protecting disclosure or sale of our sensitive information ..."

Of course, the smart meter can collect some information. That's its purpose. Therefore the issue is the same issue that applies to any company which collects information about you or you life - the bank, the credit card company, Google, Facebook - that they must safeguard it and not share it without the customer's consent. This is not a Smart Meter issue. Your electric usage has generally been public - it's shown on the meter on the outside of your house!

In fact, the PSC Order has required BGE to share this data with other companies - those trying to take away its business. That is what should be stopped!

C.1, C.2

Actual issues and actions required

Among all the issues and concerns being thrown around, there are actually some valid ones, but they are being hidden by all the erroneous, or just plain stupid, ones. The opponents should concentrate their efforts on the following:

  1. Meter Design
    1. Insist that the meters be UL tested and listed as being "consumer" equipment, since they are installed on the customer's house. Insist that the meters be safety certified by UL. (The same should apply to the equipment that Verizon and Comcast install on or in your house. Wonder how many fires have been caused by these.) The testing should include verification that the meter can withstand at least twice the expected amperage (twice 200 amps for residential use).
    2. Insist that no flammable material (plastic) be used in the meters (or in other electric appliances that are supposed to heat up like toasters).
  2. Meter Installation
    1. Insist on some form of certification or licensing for technicians who perform the installation. An electrician's license would be required for any similar work inside one's house.
    2. Insist that a Smart Meter can only be installed when the technician has access to the circuit breakers so that they can verify a proper installation and properly turn circuits off and on, unless the customer signs a release.
  3. Information Privacy/security
    1. Insist that BGE can only collect information on the power usage per interval, perhaps 10 or 15 minutes, (and the voltage and peak instantaneous usage per interval per phase to help determine if the house has a wiring problem). Order 81637 requires "a minimum of hourly meter reads", which apparently means "at least once per hour".
    2. Insist that any information collected cannot be used for any other purpose or given to any third party, including to competing electricity providers. There should be a federal law that covers all information gathered by anyone. (Note that, in its continuing, misguided push for alternative suppliers, the PSC is likely to mandate that BGE share this information. In fact, Order 81637 already requires "non-discriminatory access for retail electric suppliers and curtailment service providers to meter data", thus it must be shared without the customer's permission.)
    3. Insist that the adequacy of the security mechanisms be periodically reviewed by a reputable security company to ensure that they are kept up-to-date with advances in technology and the ability to break this security.
  4. Communication with Other Appliances
    1. Insist that any "smart" appliance must be made and sold with the communication capability (wireless or wired) turned off, and that it can be turned on (and configured) only with the customer's written authorization and statement that they understand the potential security and privacy issues.
    2. Insist (in the future when BGE requests authorization to do this) that any communication with or control of any appliance in your house can only be done with your explicit, written permission.

And finally, MSMA stated in a July 31, 2013 filing that "in all honesty, MSMA really hopes that it is 100% wrong about the health, safety and privacy issues". Well, MSMA, you can rest assured that you are.

References

Publics Service Commission (Maryland)

Equipment used by BGE:

Studies showing that Smart Meters are safe:

  • Truthfully, there are too many to even attempt to list here.

Responsible comments and suggestions on this subject are welcome. Please send to mpierce1@aol.com.

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Updated 17 June 2014 by MAP