Growing Opposition to Smart Meters

If you live in a major city and even a small town, chances are you already have a smart meter or will get one soon. Is it safe?

Featured image: Portland General Electric, Flickr Creative Commons

WASHINGTON, March 22, 2015—As more cities and towns around the U.S. install smart electricity meters, the change is encountering growing opposition. While supporters tout the benefits of a state-of-the-art, modernized grid, critics cite potential fire hazards as well as privacy and health concerns.

Unlike traditional utility meters, which are physically read and recorded by a utility employee, smart meters connect to the utility wirelessly and eliminate the need for human meter readers.

Smart meters have been used for some time in many European countries and have recently been installed in the U.S. as part of an effort to modernize many of the country’s power grids. By July 2014, 43 percent of U.S. households had smart meters installed, and the number is steadily increasing. However, opposition to smart meters is increasing as well.

Fire safety

One of the most serious concerns regarding smart meters is that they may be a potential fire hazard. Close 900 fires around the U.S. have been reportedly linked to smart meters, according to Maryland Smart Meter Awareness. The news is filled with stories of smart meter-related fires. (EMF Safety Network maintains a list of news reports of suspected smart meter fires.)

Critics are concerned that most smart meters are not certified for safety by Underwriters Laboratories (UL). Under U.S. state and city electrical codes, all appliances within the home must have a UL safety certification. However, as of the date, only two smart meter designs (General Electric and Sensus) have UL certification.

Some utilities claim that their smart meters are certified by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). However, while ANSI promulgates safety standards that UL and other organizations use to certify products, ANSI does not provide safety certification for a specific product.

In one report where a UL customer service representative contacted Florida Power & Light (FPL) to inquire why the smart meters the utility was installing were not UL certified, FPL responded that UL certification only applies to consumer products. According to FPL, since a smart meter is considered a utility product and sold only to utility companies, it does not require UL testing.

However, having a smart meter without UL certification installed in a home may invalidate that home’s insurance coverage. Many insurance contracts invalidate coverage if there is an electric device installed in the home that is not UL certified.

Fire concerns in some areas have prompted large-scale replacement of smart meters. In Canada, SaskPower has removed over 100,000 smart meters and replaced them with older models. In some U.S. states, tens of thousands of smart meters have been replaced as well. According to Maryland Smart Meter Awareness, over 370,000 smart meters have been replaced in North America due to fire concerns.

Privacy concerns

Smart meters collect a large amount of data and relay it back to the utility. This raises several serious privacy concerns, according to smart meter opponents.

In August 2014, SkyVision Solutions, a consumer protection advocate, released an updated comprehensive report on how smart meters present an invasion of privacy. The 75-page report reveals that utility companies collect massive amounts of data that is not necessary for billing purposes.

The data collected by smart meters can be analyzed and manipulated to determine how many people are in the home at specific times, when the home is vacant, when occupants are asleep, when they eat and when they use a specific appliance (as well as what type of appliance). Smart meter data can also reveal if a home has a security system and whether it is armed.

According to the SkyVision report, law enforcement can use smart meter data to identify suspicious activity or corroborate an alibi. Data can also be used by a landlord to spy on tenants and by manufacturers to target marketing. For families with electric vehicles that they charge at home, data can be used to identify routines and travel history.

Additionally, according to the SkyVision report, hackers could easily remotely disconnect users and cause major blackouts.

Health concerns

Smart meters emit radiofrequency (RF) radiation, as do cell phones, satellite TVs, baby monitors, Wifi modems and a number of other household electronics. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies RF radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

Supporters of smart meters argue that “RF emitted by smart meters is well below the limits set by Federal Communications Commission and it is below levels produced by other common household devices.” They also argue that smart meters are regularly located on an outer wall of the home, thereby reducing the RF radiation that reaches the home’s inhabitants.

However, opponents of smart meters argue that given the proliferation of other RF-emitting devices, we should question adding yet another group of them to our home and work environments.

Green Energy Futures
Green Energy Futures

“Given the unprecedented and rapidly proliferating amounts of radiation we are already inundated with from cell towers, WiFi, cell phones, cordless phones, microwave ovens and so forth, do we really need this new layer?” asks Jonathan D. Libber, president of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness.

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine, an international organization of physicians and other professionals, called for “immediate caution regarding ‘Smart Meter’ installation due to potentially harmful RF exposure” in 2012.

The WHO has announced that it intends to conduct further research on the health effects of RF radiation.

Even if smart meters emit a small amount of RF radiation, and even if most are located on an outer wall of a home, people living in apartment buildings that have large banks of smart meters may be receiving much more RF radiation if they share a wall or their unit is close to the meters.

Higher bills

Opponents to smart meters also cite an unexplained rise in electric bills after the meters are installed. One recent survey conducted by EMFSafetyNetwork.org found that 35 percent of respondents saw an increase in their utility bill.

There are several other reports of higher bills from different parts of the country. For example, the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) received over 300 billing complaints for the first 11 months of 2013, and several hundred more in 2014. Bill discrepancy has been so widespread in certain areas that there have been class action lawsuits in Bakersfield, CA and several towns in Texas.                              

Can I opt out?

For individuals and families who rent their home or those who live in a condominium, it may be impossible to opt out of having a meter installed. Most states have an opt-out program. However, opting out may be expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. For example, certain utilities charge a one-time opt-out fee between $50 and $200, or a monthly fee between $10 and $50. Some charge both. Certain jurisdictions, like D.C., do not even allow their customers to opt out.

A few places have managed to obtain free opt-out, like Fountain, Colorado, but it was not easy and took a lot of grassroots campaigning by determined citizens.

As smart meters are increasingly becoming the norm in the U.S., questions about their use continue to arise. If you have questions regarding smart meters in your home, contact you local power company.

Image courtesy of Green Energy Futures

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