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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. 

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

  1. RobertWilliams Says:

    Smart Meters Are NOT Green.

    Concepts and theory sounds great, but upon closer inspection:

    1. Customer information from smart meters is NOT formatted for customers and does NOT change customer behavior towards conservation.

    2. Increased utility rates may decrease energy usage and that can be done with inexpensive time-of-use meters, NOT requiring expensive smart meters.

    3. The cost – benefit of smart meters is horrendous and is being promoted to profit the utility companies and their suppliers, not customers or our society or our environment.

    4. The Smart Grid does NOT use or require a smart meter on each home. The necessary smart information can be gathered much more efficiently and timely and inexpensively at energy distribution points. (The smart grid does not care how much power any one home uses.)

    5. The vast amount of unnecessary and nearly useless information to be handled and stored may actually end up raising energy usage.

    6. This massive Billions-of-dollars smart meter program will leave NO funds for programs that would truly bring energy saving solutions and the public will not be receptive to real solutions after being burned by these Smart meters.

  2. Widemouth Says:

    Nice thorough article Debra. Here is some supportive information. Smart Meters – something to be afraid of?

  3. melissa levine Says:

    The reason you think the SCE’s installation has gone much more smoothly is that it has taken place without proper advance notice. People don’t even know that the utility company’s upgrade emits radiation which the World Health Organization calls a possible class 2b carcinogenic. When they do find out–they are not happy. The Smart Meters also create electro smog–hurt bees and birds and plants.

  4. Kristen Clark Says:

    I am among the contingency who feels the electromagnetic signals are causing health problems. I appreciate you bringing this out in your articles. It is a possible carcinogenic, I believe, and is contributing to the obesity we find ourselves and our pets struggling with on a national level. Michelle Obama would do well to take her campaign in the direction of reducing radiation exposure on all levels. But that will probably never happen.
    I agree wholeheartedly that the SmartMeter is not green. As for the Smart Grid, though, I think we do need a way to connect the wind energy to the power companies and homes. So there are systemic changes that do need to happen. And no, they won’t make everybody happy. But here is the reaons I am writing: There is a way to obtain electricity from the earth’s surface. Nikoli Tesla discovered a way to tap into it, but the ideas were destroyed by the electric company he shared his discovery with. They didn’t want people to have access to basically free electricity! So, if we could redevelop this technology, maybe Smart Grids and Smart Meters won’t be needed at all.

  5. "smart" you say Says:

    The solution is fiber optic. If everybody wants to die at age 56 following in the footsteps of Steve “wifi” Jobs then go ahead but please don’t exposure me to 24/7/365 radiation from your meter. (nothing like 20,000 to 190,000 microbursts of 4g micrwave energy bombarding you every 24 hours).

    According to this position letter from US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “The FCC’s current (radio frequency/microwave) exposure guidelines … are thermally based, and do not apply to chronic, nonthermal exposure situations. They are believed to protect against injury that may be caused by acute exposures that result in tissue heating or electric shock and burn.” “The FCC’s exposure guideline is considered protective of effects arising from a thermal mechanism but not from all possible mechanisms. Therefore, the generalization by many that the guidelines protect human beings from harm by any or all mechanisms is not justified”. “Federal health and safety agencies have not yet developed policies concerning possible risk from long-term, nonthermal exposures”.,22,1399

    Also research how the meters are apparently damaging the needles of pine trees.

  6. George Karadimas Says:


    Smart Meters are Fire Starters….Do not have one put on your home or you may be the next fire reported in the news. here is an artcle where PECO in Philly PA put a HALT to the NOT SO SMART meter Roll out due to Smart Meter overheating and reported home fires Also look here too! How much more proof does one need to see the danger posed by the Smart Meter roll out!

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