Smart meters: a danger or a modern convenience?

Smart meters: a danger or a modern convenience?

Smart meters have been the subject of much lively debate in Siskiyou County over the past couple months, with smart meter installations having begun in Mount Shasta in late July.

Smart meters have been the subject of much lively debate in Siskiyou County over the past couple months, with smart meter installations having begun in Mount Shasta in late July. While the California Public Utilities Commission and Pacific Power maintain that smart meters are safe and will provide numerous benefits for customers, many groups and individuals in the area have decried those assurances and claimed that smart meters may cause innumerable ills, from fires to adverse biological effects.

As smart meters also began to be installed in Oregon at the start of 2018, many Oregon and California residents who are opposed to smart meters have banded together to protest their installation. This was evidenced in Yreka on Sept. 15, when citizens from Siskiyou County and Oregon stood outside the Pacific Power office with picket signs.

One such group of smart meter opponents represented at the protest – “Freedom to Say No to Smart Meters,” based in Jackson County, Oregon – disseminates a handout entitled, “The Facts About Smart Meters.” In it, the group claims that the reason Pacific Power is installing smart meters is “to make more money.”

The handout states, “Like any business, Pacific Power has one fundamental goal: Increasing its profit margin.”

According to Pacific Power, though, the utility has a host of reasons to install smart meters that appear to have more to do with efficiency than lining its executives’ pockets. Cory Estlund, manager of field support for Pacific Power, said that with the installation of smart meters, the company will be able to determine the size and scope of power outages much sooner than was possible with analog meters.

With analog meters, when a customer’s power is shut off, a utility worker must be sent out to restore power. Smart meters, however, will allow service to be restored remotely – without the additional charge to the customer that comes from having to send a utility worker.

Pacific Power representatives also said that smart meters will improve accuracy both in measuring consumers’ electricity use and in billing. Monte Mendenhall, regional business manager for Pacific Power in northern California, noted that there is a certain risk for human error when utility workers read analog meters, which won’t be a factor with smart meters.

The new meters will also increase safety for utility workers, as they won’t have to read meters in poor weather – something that applies to areas like Mount Shasta in particular, where snow can create dangerous driving conditions and sometimes make meters inaccessible.

And we’ve all heard people complain about high electric bills or a sudden spike in their electricity costs that they can’t explain. With analog meters, Estlund said, when a customer calls about a sudden increase in their electric bill, the utility only knows how much electricity that consumer used in a 30 day period. Smart meters, though, can measure electricity use at up to fifteen minute intervals, so a utility worker will be able to tell the customer, “Something happened during this day, during this hour,” giving the customer a much better idea of what may have caused a spike.

Many smart meter opponents claim that Radio Frequency emissions from meters can lead to health problems. Freedom to Say No to Smart Meters states in its handout, “Because the [Federal Communications Commission] set their ‘safe’ exposure limit so high, the highest in the world, even 1.6% exceeds or greatly exceeds the safe RF exposure limits set for civilian populations by many other countries, including China, Russia, Italy, France, Poland, Hungary, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria.”

That statement is misleading, however, as numerous countries set the same limit for long term exposure to RF energy as the U.S. The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection set the same limit as the FCC, according to a study provided by the World Health Organization. Limits are also set specifically for extended periods of exposure.

Pacific Power states on its website, “In fact, the radio frequency from smart meters is so low that you could stand directly in front of a smart meter for a year and still have less radio frequency exposure than you’d get from a single 15-minute cell phone call.”

Freedom to Say No to Smart Meters claims, “Since the RF power unit of a Smart Meter has twice the wattage of a cell phone, when it does transmit, it sends out a far more powerful signal than a cell phone does.” However, Pacific Power cites that a smart meter transmitting power of 1 watt “will produce a signal intensity of less than 0.5 [watts per square meter], at a distance of 0.5 meters.” According to a study on cell phone radiation available on Stanford University’s website, the peak total radiated power of a standard cell phone is 2 watts for phones operating at 900 MHz; Pacific Power’s smart meters operate at a comparable 902-928 MHz. Pacific Power also specifies, “This exposure is one-tenth or less of the most widely adopted international (ICNIRP) and U.S. (FCC) exposure limits.”

Estlund stated that a typical smart meter will transmit a signal an average of 45 seconds per day. Some high duty meters may transmit up to 4 percent of the day, which equates to just under an hour.

Residents can opt out of having a smart meter installed for a $20 per month fee, or $16 per month if they income qualify. This is based on the cost to send a utility worker out to read the analog meter. While Pacific Power will not allow all non-residential customers to opt out of smart meter installation, they do make an exception, stating, “We are persuaded that it is reasonable to allow PacifiCorp to offer the Smart Meter opt-out option to non-residential customers who have both residential and non-residential accounts associated with meters on a single premise or on directly adjacent premises.”

PacifiCorp, the parent company of Pacific Power, reports, “PacifiCorp believes that the majority, if not the entirety of the remaining non-residential customers, will welcome Smart Meters because of their potential to permit more efficient management of energy costs through real-time feedback and the ability to measure the effectiveness of alternative energy saving measures.”

Pacific Power also reported that 95 percent of smart meters will last over 15 years. And as for the cost of the electricity it takes to operate the smart meter – which many opponents say they will be saddled with – Mendenhall said that cost falls on the utility company’s side.

Finally, Mendenhall provided some information on the basic difference between how a smart meter operates, versus how an analog meter operates. “An analog meter operates by continuously measuring the instantaneous voltage (volts) and current (amperes) to measure energy as kilowatt-hours. The electromechanical induction meter operates through electromagnetic induction by counting the revolutions of a non-magnetic, electrically conductive, metal disc which is made to rotate at a speed proportional to the power passing through the meter. The number of revolutions is thus proportional to the energy usage.” A smart meter, on the other hand, is a solid state unit – a semiconductor electronic device with no moving parts – which measures energy based on the same premise as an analog, or electromechanical meter. It is simply not a mechanical process.

While smart meter technology has been available for about ten years, Mendenhall explained that Pacific Power waited to install the meters in order to let the technology mature and to let its price come down. Opponents have also alleged that smart meters can cause fires. Estlund said that while some generation one smart meters had design flaws, Pacific Power specifically did not choose the vendor that offered those faulty meters. Over 250,000 smart meters have been installed in California thus far, Mendenhall and Estlund said, none of which have been responsible for starting a fire.

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