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September 21, 2011

Don’t Like Smart Meters; Opt Out at Your Own Expense

If you stand nine feet from a smart meter for twenty-four hours/day for a year and a half, you'll get about the same dose of radiation that you get during a ten minute cellphone call when you're holding the phone to your ear. (math below).

A smart electrical grid is a good thing. It gives us consumers more information and choices, ways to save money, more net-metering opportunities for those who want to generate some of our own electricity, and the opportunity to replace oil for both home heating and transportation. Jobs will be created as businesses discover ways to reduce the energy-cost of their operations. Even if we choose not to make use of the smart grid information ourselves, we will still benefit because our local utility can use the information to fix outages faster and more cheaply than before (often before sleeping consumers even report them), reduce the amount of power which has to be purchased to meet demand, smooth out expensive peaks, and eliminate the cost of manually reading meters. Lower costs for our utilities mean lower rates for us – perhaps not lower than they have been but certainly lower than they would be otherwise.

So what's not to like?

Part of implementing a smart electrical grid is the installation of smart meters: electronic replacements for the electromechanical meters we've been using almost forever. Unlike the old meters, the new ones communicate information about demand and line voltage back to the utility in near real-time. The timely information from these meters is essential to the benefits the smart grid can deliver. In much of Vermont and many other places, low-power radio is the most practical way for the meters to communicate with the rest of the grid.

Some people are afraid of the electromagnetic energy generated by the meters during communication. They shouldn't be. If you stand 9 feet from a smart meter while it is transmitting (at most one twentieth of a second every 15 minutes), you are exposed to a power density of about 4 microwatts per square centimeter (µW/cm2). For comparison, if you hold a cell phone to your head during a conversation, you are exposed to anywhere from 1000 to 5000 µW/cm2. Stand one foot away from your microwave while it is operating (not even close enough to look in), and you are in a force field of 200-800 µW/cm2. So if you stand nine feet from a smart meter for twenty-four hours/day for a year and a half, you'll get about the same total dose of radiation that you get during a ten minute cellphone call when you're holding the phone to your ear, assuming the low end emission for a cellphone. All numbers here are taken from a study done by the California Council of Science and Technology (CCST) entitled Health Impacts of Radio Frequency Exposure from Smart Meters. CCST points out that, even if your smart meter somehow got stuck in transmit 50% of the time and you were standing a foot from it forever, you would not receive more radiation than the FCC guidelines allow.

Some people are afraid that their privacy will be violated because their utility will be able to determine short-term electricity use. It is true that monitoring electricity use can be an indication of when you came and left home, when you dried the laundry, and perhaps other aspects of your behavior. Even with dumb meters, for example, police sometimes use extreme electricity demand to indicate that someone is growing large quantities of pot under grow lights. There do need to be limits on how this data is used and who has access to it. There also need to be rules to assure that you have access to your own data. However, compared to what your Google searches reveal about you or the trail of electronic crumbs your cellphone leaves behind even when you are not talking, this is a very fixable privacy problem with small risk.

Reasonable or not, some people just don't want smart meters. That leaves us with four choices:

  1. Deny everyone the benefits of smart electric grid because a few people don't like smart meters.
  2. Require everyone to have smart meter if they want to buy electricity, just as we require everyone to have a dumb meter today.
  3. Allow anyone who doesn't want to have a smart meter to say "no thanks" and have everyone pay the extra cost of manually reading his or her meter and less grid management information.
  4. Allow anyone who doesn't want to have a smart meter to say "no thanks" and charge those who make the choice the extra costs they are imposing on the system as a whole. In other words, if you don't want a smart meter, you don't get a share of the benefits of the smart grid.

Central Vermont Public Service has proposed choice #4 to the Vermont Public Service Board. Their calculation of the extra cost is $10/month. Stowe Electric Department (of which I'm a board member) has not yet filed a proposal with the PSB on this issue nor has the Board taken a position However, speaking only for myself, I think it's good to give people a choice when choice is possible – and I think people need to be responsible for the cost of their own choices. I'm for option #4.

Related posts:

Irene Lesson # 1 – Smart Grid Great for Power Restoration

House Flatlines – Smart Grid to the Rescue

What's a Smart Grid and Why Does It Matter?

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