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The Benefits and Challenges of “Smart Meters” for the Smart Grid


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Editor’s Note: This is the second of three stories about the Smart Grid, its components, and the issues related to its implementation.

By Debra Atlas

The Smart Grid is a catch-all name for a number of technological fixes to the current electricity grid that would merge new technologies with changing energy needs and drive U.S. electricity generation, transmission, and distribution into the 21st century, according to Don Van Dollen, IntelliGrid programs manager for the Electric Power Research Institute.

A key component of the success of the Smart Grid is the SmartMeter. Smart Meters use wireless signals to transmit up-to-the-minute usage data, eliminating the need for visits from a meter reader. Constant two-way communication between electricity generators and electricity users is at the heart of the hope for a smart grid, says Chemical & Engineering News Senior Correspondent Jeff Johnson.

There’s a great deal of consumer distrust and inaccurate information about SmartMeters, which is unsurprising given their newness and complexity. The main consumer issues at hand are:

  • Its impact on human health;
  • Its accuracy;
  • And how it could affect our privacy.

Health concerns are probably the biggest consumer issue. SmartMeters operate on a bandwidth close to that of cell phones. There’s been relatively little research on health concerns linked to Smart Meters, says environmental journalist Bob Weinhold. However, the media has often discussed (and sometimes dismissed) concerns about cell phones’ electromagnetic radiation and its possible connection to brain cancers.

This issue was raised as far back as 2002, when former Norwegian Prime Minister and current World Health Organization Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland discussed the chronic headaches she got when using her mobile phone. Even if research isn’t conclusive, there may well be a serious link between electromagnetic field radiation and health. Experts were quick to criticize a recent report claiming there was no connection between the two as both flawed and misleading. With almost half the US population suffering from one or more chronic disorders, a large pool of people could likely be more vulnerable to wireless emissions.

The accuracy of the Smart Meters is another big issue. In northern California, many residents of Santa Cruz and Marin counties are opposed to the installation of Smart Meters by PG&E. Their concerns stem from the health and environmental effects of the electromagnetic radiation the meters produce, as well as allegations of inaccurate meter readings.

By fall 2009, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) had received more than 600 consumer complaints about “unexpectedly high” bills, as well as allegations that the new electric Smart Meters were not accurately recording electric usage. Almost all of these complaints were from PG&E’s service area. The CPUC hired an independent company to determine whether PG&E’s Smart Meter system was correctly measuring and billing electric usage. Although the resulting report found no direct fault with PG&E’s meters, it did reveal a lack of communication and response from the megautility.

Other utility companies have activated smart meters without causing these same kinds of fiascos. In southern California, the installation and acceptance of Smart Meters by SoCal Edison has gone much more smoothly, although there still is a strong contingent organized to try to stop further implementation of the devices. San Diego Gas & Electric is on the path to install 1.4 million Smart Meters. Residents already installed 11,000 rooftop units and are seeking permits for another 5,000.

Lastly, there is the consumer issue of privacy. According a San Francisco Bay Area meter reader, PG&E will be able to monitor and control consumer power usage from a central control point. Smart Meters transmit meter readings throughout the day, giving utilities frequent input as to how much energy demand there is on the system and allowing them to adjust their operations to equalize demand and reduce peak loads. Some consumers argue that the utilities can gauge the behavior of building occupants via the information collected, and that the utility’s security can be hacked, jeopardizing their privacy.

The issue of SmartMeters is a thorny one, it isn’t going away. The success of the SmartGrid depends on both awareness of consumer issues and an appreciation of the bigger picture in terms of overall benefits.

For related article, see:
Smart Grid, Smart Idea

Check out more articles by Debra Atlas.

© 2011 SCGH, LLC. 

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