Why Some People Are Refusing ‘Smart’ Utility Meters in Their Homes
A small portion of the population resists “smart” utility meters as a way of staving off government overreach. Roy Scott/Getty Images
by Patrick J. Kiger
September 27, 2016
Across the country, utility companies are rapidly transitioning from old-fashioned meters to electronic “smart” meters, which capture data on your electricity or natural gas use and transmit it wirelessly to the company’s computers. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that there are close to 60 million smart meters installed, and it’s not hard to understand why utility companies like them. The devices eliminate the need for human meter readers to walk around and check every house individually, which saves a lot of money. But more importantly, smart meters enable utility providers to gather detailed, continuous data on how much energy you’re using and when you’re using it, which enables them to plan for electrical demand more precisely and adjust pricing to fit.
Activists who want to reduce our fossil fuel consumption to fight climate change tend to be big on smart meters as well. The Environmental Defense Fund, for example, sees smart meters as empowering consumers by providing them with a way to track their own energy consumption — and find ways to reduce it.
Smart meters also have the potential to communicate with gadgets throughout the home, via the Internet of Things, and find savings for consumers without them even noticing. Moreover, environmentalists see smart meters as an integral part of future smart grids, which will be fine-tuned to utilize energy from a host of renewable sources — everything from wind farms to solar panels on home roofs to the juice stored in the batteries of electric cars parked in driveways at night.
Smart Meter Doubters
That all sounds great, if you’re a person who buys into the whole idea of a smart, wired future. But not everybody thinks that this is a great development. Across the U.S., some people are resisting the installation of smart meters, which they see as intruding upon their privacy, denying them free choice as consumers, making them vulnerable to hackers, and possibly even damaging their health.
In Maryland, for example, Mario and Assya Pascalev, a couple from the upscale Washington, DC suburb of Bethesda spent part of the summer without lights or air conditioning after Pepco, the local utility provider, shut off their juice because they declined to pay a $14 monthly penalty for refusing installation of a smart meter. They’ve since had their power restored, but the dispute continues, as Assya Pascalev explained in an email.
Pascalev says that she and her husband had a wide range of concerns about smart meters, most of which seem to be privacy-related. Collecting so much continuous data, she says, allows a utility company “to infer when and where the inhabitants are in the house, how they move around inside, what appliances they use and hence what they do. For instance, it could indicate if they are cooking, having a hot house in the backyard, or growing pot in the basement. If criminals hack into the data, this makes the home vulnerable to crime.”
Health and Privacy Concerns
They’re not the only ones. In Maine, smart meter opponents, who claimed that electromagnetic radiation from the meters could cause health problems ranging from cancer to chronic pain, fought a four-year battle with the Public Utility Commission, going all the way to the state’s Supreme Court. (The justices ultimately upheld the commission’s finding that the meters didn’t pose a risk.) And in Phoenix, Arizona, where a local utility has been installing the meters since the mid-2000s, more than 20,000 people have refused installation.