Environment

Backlash Against Smart Meters: Are the Green Gizmos Really a Threat to Public Health and Privacy?

Smart meters were designed to help reduce energy consumption, but some California residents claim the technology does more harm than good.

California prides itself on being an early adopter of energy-saving technologies. And so, in 2003, as smart meters -- utility meters that give consumers real-time information on how much energy they are using and impose on- and off-peak rates -- first emerged as a way to help consumers prune energy use, the state's Public Utilities Commission urged utilities to catch the wave of the future.

But now, as the meters are going in to homes across the state, the PUC and Pacific Gas and Electric -- Northern California's dominant utility -- are facing an insurgency of local groups who call the green gizmos a threat to health, civil liberties and even democracy. In the last month, four women in Marin and Sonoma counties were arrested for barricading roads to keep installation trucks out of their neighborhoods. Five Northern California local governments have hurriedly declared a moratorium on installations.   

Did the state veer off course with smart meters, or is the dramatic backlash simply par for the course, as national media coverage has suggested, in a state with more than its fair share of hippie eccentrics easily riled to political activism by amorphous threats to their health?  

One certainly gets a whiff of the latter when Joshua Hart -- the shaggy 35-year-old who heads Scotts Valley Neighbors Against Smart Meters -- alleges that the wireless meters installed by PG&E "are forcing people from their homes" by triggering health problems ranging from everyday maladies, such as headaches, sleeplessness and ringing in the ears, to obscure ailments like electromagnetic hypersensitivity, which isn't recognized by the U.S. medical community.  

Hart insists that he, too, initially thought those who objected to smart meters were "tinfoil hat crazies." But, when he received notice from PG&E that his home would be outfitted with one of the new meters, he got curious.

"I started looking at original research and what I found is really scary," Hart told me. Since then, he's gotten rid of his cell phone and wireless internet service.  

A few studies have raised concerns about human exposure to the radio-frequency radiation that transmits our data bytes wirelessly. Intense exposure can heat human tissue; such "thermal" effects are universally recognized as dangerous, and the FCC has set exposure limits based on these risks.  

The evidence for non-thermal effects is much thinner. A 2009 Swiss study found that intermittent exposure of human cells to radiation more intense than what the FCC allows interfered with DNA replication. Smart meter opponents have latched on to these findings because the meters send usage data in intermittent bursts. They point to an analysisconducted by Sage Environmental Consultants which suggests that in certain configurations the meters may exceed FCC limits -- findings state and utility data contradicts.  

While it's almost certainly an overstatement to say that California's smart meter rollout is "creating a population of people who are having to struggle to find safe places to live and work," as Hart does, even a PUC-commissioned report concluded that more research is needed on "non-thermal human health impacts."

Other Concerns

Katharina Sandizell, a 41-year-old Point Reyes Station resident and the co-director of West Marin Citizens Against Wireless Smart Meters, had never engaged in civil disobedience before she stood on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard with a couple dozen of her neighbors December 28, facing down eight trucks sent by a PG&E subcontractor to install smart meters in area homes. She and June DiMorente, 32, were subsequently arrested.

Shortly after their arrests, the county Board of Supervisors called for a moratorium on smart meter installation, and Marin assemblyman Jared Huffman introduced a state bill that would allow consumers to opt for non-wireless smart meters.

But Sandizell isn't primarily concerned with the health effects of radio frequency -- although she has been wireless-free as a precaution since her oldest child, now 6, was a toddler. The installations, she rattles off, are "antithetical to civil liberties. The privacy issues are daunting, and the health issues are questionable."

That health fears have garnered more media attention has distracted the public from the substantial challenges the new meters pose to consumer privacy: Real-time monitoring of electricity use reveals an enormous amount about what people do in the privacy of their homes -- information that, if sold, would effectively open the front door to marketers in each of the 5.1 million Northern California homes slated to get smart electricity meters. (PG&E also proposes supplying 4.2 million of its natural gas customers with new meters.) The San Francisco nonprofits Electronic Frontier Foundation and Center for Democracy and Technology have called on the PUC to develop guidelines requiring utilities not to share consumer data.

Despite so much resistance, PG&E has doggedly continued its massive installation task, refusing, for example to abide by local bans -- a response that has spurred that much more resentment and suspicion. (The utility has declined to explain itself in the press and did not make a spokesperson available for this article.)

There's no shortage of conspiracy theories to explain PG&E's aggressive rollout, but one need look no further than its bottom line to find the company's motivation. The PUC, which regulates California's utility rates, has given the utility permission to pass the multi-billion dollar meter installation costs onto its ratepayers. Once operational, wireless meters eliminate the need for armies of meter readers and allow the company to shut off power on laggard bill payers with the flip of a switch. And if the meters succeed in reducing demand for electricity at peak times, utilities will see their overhead costs plummet.

Ultimately, everything hinges on whether California's ambitious experiment with smart meters yields significant energy savings. Most studies have found the meters deliver only modest results. A 2010 report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy concluded that "Advanced metering initiatives alone are neither necessary nor sufficient for providing households with the feedback that they need to achieve energy saving; however, they do offer important opportunities." The study recommends the meters be used in conjunction with in-home or online information displays -- which PG&E has not yet offered -- and educational programs.

Mistakes Made?

As the state continues down the long, windy path toward a smart grid, if demand drops and backup power plants begin to close their doors, the smart meter dust-up will fall into the dustbin of history. But if energy consumption doesn't budge, the state's precipitous embrace of wireless smart meters may garner more attention.

Chris Danforth, a smart meter expert with the PUC's own Division of Ratepayer Advocates, noted that PG&E's initial proposal to the PUC would have relied on a "power-line carrier." But the company couldn't transmit data fast and reliably enough, according to Danforth, "so they had to change to a radio carrier -- and then all these issues developed with radio."

The PUC is deliberating over privacy concerns, but Danforth also acknowledges that the PUC's report "may not have gone far enough with non-thermal impacts" and that "the commission should continue to look at this issue in some kind of public forum."

Which is a big part of what Hart's and Sandizell's groups are demanding -- so maybe they aren't so crazy after all.