Understanding Smart Meters

One of the most important features of a modern electricity grid is its layer of advanced communications technology. On our old grid, our homes and businesses were unable to talk to power plants; if there was a blackout, the grid wouldn’t know.

My Home and the Modern Grid (Download PDF)With a modern grid, information can be relayed between all the points where energy is produced, stored, and delivered. The role of smart meters is to measure and report this data, enabling the grid to balance out fluctuations in supply and demand. Think of smart meters as the nerve endings that alert your brain if your hand is touching a hot stove—smart meters communicate how much power is needed and when there is a problem. By processing this data, the grid can then regulate the flow of electricity more efficiently and reliably. This will also enable us to integrate more clean, local, renewable sources of energy.

Unfortunately, common myths and misleading claims about smart meters have fueled concerns over safety, security, and privacy. To address these concerns, Blue Planet examined the research thoroughly. Here is what we found.

Download our brochure for more information - My Home and the Modern Grid: Understanding Smart Meters (PDF).

 


Are smart meters safe? Yes.

Smart meters are "smart" because they can use radio waves to connect wirelessly to a communication system and allow for better grid operation. Some people have asked whether smart meters are safe, mainly because this wireless communication uses radio waves, like many other wireless devices. “RF” (radio frequencies), “EMF” (electromagnetic fields) and “radiation” (energy travelling in waves) are scientific terms referring to electromagnetic energy.  “Radiation” does not mean the same thing as “radioactive.”

Electromagnetic radiation surrounds us all the time; the most familiar example is ordinary visible light. Many common devices emit or receive electromagnetic energy.  These include things like light bulbs, hot plates, remote controls, computer screens, cordless telephones, cellular telephones, metal detectors, wireless computer networks, and baby monitors. Wireless communication devices, from AM radios, to cell phones, to satellites, all use low-energy electromagnetic radio waves to transfer information. Smart meters also use the same “non-ionizing” low-energy radio waves to transmit information about the electricity grid.

Typically, a smart meter emits its radio signal for about 1 minute per day. Over the course of 20 years, the anticipated exposure from a smart meter is equal to a single 30-minute cell phone call. A 2011 report from the California Council on Science and Technology illustrates that radio frequency exposure from a smart meter is only a fraction of that from a cell phone held at your ear (even if a smart meter transmitted radio waves 24 hours per day).

According to the American Cancer Society, there “is no clear evidence at this time that RF waves from smart meters (or other devices) can cause harmful health effects. The low levels of energy from RF waves have not been clearly shown to cause problems even at close range, and the energy decreases the farther a person is from the transmission source.”

 

Are smart meters are hazardous to health? No.

 

According to the World Health Organization, a “number of studies have investigated the effects of radiofrequency fields on brain electrical activity, cognitive function, sleep, heart rate and blood pressure in volunteers. To date, research does not suggest any consistent evidence of adverse health effects from exposure to radiofrequency fields at levels below those that cause tissue heating. Further, research has not been able to provide support for a causal relationship between exposure to electromagnetic fields and self-reported symptoms, or “electromagnetic hypersensitivity.”

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, over the past 15 years, scientists have conducted hundreds of studies looking at the biological effects of the radio frequency energy from cell phones. While some of these studies have reported biological changes associated with radio frequency energy, these studies have failed to be replicated. The majority of studies published have failed to show an association between exposure to radio frequency. Low-level radio frequency does not produce any biological effect, and causes “no known adverse health effects.”

The Environmental Defense Fund points out: “People whose primary concern is human health have compelling reasons to support the smart grid. The smart grid can cut air pollution from the electric utility sector as much as 30% by 2030. That would reduce what is now the tragedy of more than 34,000 deaths a year from power plant pollution, more lives than are lost on U.S. highways. Dirty air also worsens asthma and lung disease, especially among children and the elderly, with more than 18 million acute respiratory symptoms annually.”

According to the U.S. National Institute of Health, “there is currently no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk.”

 

Do smart meters pose a security threat? No.

With regard to home security, there is a fear that burglars who are cyber-savvy cryptographers can hack into the smart meter and procure energy data that would help them determine the most opportune time to break in. This is possible, but is it probable?

Meter tampering has been a longstanding issue for utilities. When it comes to theft, the culprit is not the type of meter; it is criminal behavior. Poachers have used magnets, sand, pins, and other methods to slow or stop the spinning wheel in their analog meters. Electricity theft is not as rampant in the U.S. as it is in Brazil or India, but it still amounts to $6 billion a year.

Smart meters are no less vulnerable to malicious tampering than analog meters. Like all devices that operate on wireless networks, they are susceptible to hacking. Utilities and smart grid developers are taking measures to maximize network security. Safeguards like network resiliency, security software on meters, event correlation improvements, identity management and authorization, meter-to-meter authentication and encryption, meter worm prevention are being implemented to help to ensure grid security and obstruct meter hacking. According to Pike Research, global investment in smart meter security will reach $1.6 billion by 2015.

 

Are smart meters a violation of privacy? No.

Fundamentally, smart meters retrieve the same data that utilities have always retrieved. They measure energy use. Whereas analog meter readings reflect aggregated energy data (kilowatt hours per month), smart meters will be able to communicate data on a much more granular level, in real-time. The implications of the sensitive information that can be derived from this data (will my coffee maker reveal what time I wake up?) have raised numerous questions about privacy: Who owns the data? How will it be used? How will it be protected? Can the utility or burglars or the government use this information to spy on me?

It’s true that smart meters can give voice to previously “silent” household energy consumers like air conditioners and refrigerators. But they require customized hardware and software to direct the meter to segregate the stream of electricity—equipment that the customer would choose to install. Without these additional appliance-measuring “apps,” any conclusions about a customer’s behavior are only inferences drawn from the energy use data. Assumptions could be made, for example, based on a household’s energy use patterns that correspond to the operation of certain appliances (a 45-minute-long energy spike might be attributed to a dishwasher cycle.) A would-be burglar or marketer would have to perform advanced data analytics in order to guess how you parse your energy use.

As with the data collected by analog meters, the utility typically owns the smart meter data. Utilities have multiple uses for this data including billing, settlement, forecasting, demand response, and fraud detection.

When it comes to privacy, meter manufacturers and providers can apply the same provisions that govern privacy for other consumer electronics, like cell phones and Internet platforms that collect vast amounts of personal information from their users. Utilities are not entirely unfamiliar with protecting confidential data—they already have programs in place for protecting credit card numbers used for online payments or auto-pay billing.

Smart grid designers have the responsibility of making privacy a core feature of the hardware, software, and services that interact with the network, and utilities should establish a comprehensive privacy policy that specifies how customer-specific usage data will be used, to what it extent and under what circumstances it can be shared with third parties, and how customers can deny data sharing.

In compliance with the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) designated a Smart Grid Interoperability Panel to create standards for smart grid deployment. Operating under this panel is the Cyber Security Working Group, which focuses entirely on smart grid cyber security. In 2010 the group produced a list of guidelines concerning privacy issues.

Data privacy goes hand in hand with the benefits that wireless networks like the Internet provide. Technology has given us the incredible ability to create, collect, store, and distribute seemingly infinite amounts of data and perform myriad paperless services—and innovators have developed ways to protect all that data. Similarly, the necessary safeguards can be put in place for smart meter data. Ultimately, this data can revolutionize the way our electricity is distributed so that it is more responsive, more efficient, and more reliable.

Learn more:

Smart Grid Library: Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader About Your Electricity Data Privacy?

Smart Grid Legal News: Privacy Issues

Florida Power & Light: Facts about Smart Meters and Privacy

National Institute of Standards and Technology: Guidelines for Smart Grid Cyber Security, Vol. 2, Privacy and the Smart Grid

 

Will smart meters give accurate readings? Yes.

Without smart meters, utilities rely on meter readers to collect the data from analog meters manually once a month. The installation of smart meters will enable direct communication between the endpoint and the utility, eliminating the possibility of human error.

Customers of California utility PG&E questioned the accuracy of smart meter readings after seeing an increase in their electric bills. In response, the California PUC commissioned an independent report to investigate. The findings showed that the meters were accurately recording electric usage and that the data was being accurately utilized in customer billing. According to the study, the cost increases were due to other factors, most notably customer service and administrative errors, overlapping billing periods, and inaccurate readings from the analog meters. A similar independent study (filing #38053) commissioned by the Texas PUC measured Texas smart meters at 99.96 percent accuracy.

 

Are smart meters be cost-effective? Yes.

The numbers show that smart meters are a good investment. For approximately 33,000 households on Kaua‘i, KIUC plans to invest about 11 million dollars in the smart meter project (with 5.5 million dollars of that coming from federal funding). So, KIUC can expect that updating the meter on each household will cost approximately $333. Each meter is expected last 20 years or more, so the cost per year is about $16 per smart meter. That small investment is easy to recover from the benefits of smart meters.

For example, at current electricity prices, $16 translates into 46 kWh of energy per year, or about 4 kWh per month. In 2010, the average Kaua‘i household used over 400 kWh per month. In other words, if in-home displays or other advantages of smart meters allow Kaua‘i households to become just 1% more efficient, then from the consumer’s perspective, the smart meters will more than pay for themselves. And this calculation assumes that energy prices don’t rise at all for the next 20 years. More likely, as the price of energy rises, the smart meter investment will get better and better.

We can also see this smart investment by looking at the ability of smart meters to help us integrate more renewable energy resources onto a smarter grid. In 2010, KIUC imported over 675,000 barrels of diesel, at a cost of approximately $70 million. Meanwhile, only 1.4% of KIUC’s fuel mix was photovoltaic power produced from the sun. Even if smart meters only enable us to increase that photovoltaic contribution by a modest 2%, Kauai would save on nearly 15,000 barrels of diesel. At today’s oil prices, that would stop more than $2 million dollars per year from leaving the island each year. In five years, the smart meter investment would pay for itself. And again, as the price of oil rises in the future, this investment only gets better.

Other analyses have reached the same conclusion looking at the various ways that smart meters will save money. For example, a 2011 report on the Costs and Benefits of Smart Meters for Residential Consumers tallied up the smart meter savings and concluded that “even with conservative assumptions regarding consumer engagement in technologies, programs, and rate plans, utilities and their customers can expect positive net benefits from [smart meter] investments over the next 20 years.

Learn more:

Weighing the Cost and Benefits of Smart Meters

The Effectiveness of Feedback on Energy Consumption

 

Do smart create a new fire risk? No.

Any type of electrical equipment or appliance has some limited fire risk.  This is equally true for old analog meters and for new smart meters. But we are not aware of any peer-reviewed study suggesting that smart meters are at increased risk for fire. And since smart meters and analog meters generally use similar internal mechanisms to measure electricity, it seems unlikely that the risk of fire from a smart meter could be any different than from an old analog meter. A renewable energy utility in Canada explains that smart meters “are simply digital meters with the added capability of communicating wirelessly about energy consumption and the flow of power through the system.” After installing 560,000 smart meters over the past 10 years, the utility found that any “reports of [their] smart meters causing fires have been investigated and are simply not true.”

In another example, this news correction shows that an initial report of “smart meter fire” in California was a case of mistaken identity. The fire was actually caused by an electrical short, which burns out both smart meters and analog meters alike.  Although the news report was corrected the next day, the original inaccurate story spread to other parts of the Internet, where it remains uncorrected.

In Florida the utility has reported that of the “more than 3.1 million smart meters installed . . . we have not received any reports of fires that were determined to have been caused by the smart meters. The incidents rumored to have been caused by smart meters were in fact caused by faulty connections or failed components in the customer’s meter can.”

A meter “can” is the enclosure for each meter, and is not part of the smart meter installation. This video posted by a home inspector shows a faulty can enclosing an old analog meter. Whether the enclosure is for a smart meter or an old analog meter, such issues should be addressed by a professional.


Misleading information about smart meters undermines the potential for modern technology to accelerate progress toward energy independence. There are distinct reasons—keeping dollars at home, bringing down the cost of electricity, and reducing carbon emissions—why municipalities throughout the world are looking to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. This transition requires grid modernization, and a modern grid requires smart technology. Let’s remember the outcomes that switching to clean energy will yield: healthier communities and better air quality, energy that is reliable and sustainable, and a more robust economy that affords a higher standard of living.

Download Myths vs. Facts: The Truth About Smart Meters or watch the short video from the SmartGrid Consumer Collaborative.