Understanding Smart Meters
Grid modernization starts with smart meters
For more than 100 years, Hawai‘i’s power plants have been gulping oil imported from overseas—most recently at the lumbering rate of 31,000 thousand barrels a day. Our demand for electricity drains our local economy and pollutes the environment.
Committing to a healthier, more sustainable future, the state's goal is to replace 40 percent of its fossil-fuel-based electricity with new streams of clean, renewable power by 2030. Some of these new streams will provide steady power. But some will fluctuate, like energy from the sun. Our old electricity grid will struggle to accommodate all this new power. We need a modern, “smart” grid.
Think of the smart grid as a complex nervous system—a network of neurons and synapses that can communicate with each other, interpret data, and activate the appropriate response. In humans, this information network enables sophisticated perception (like seeing and hearing), coordination with other organ systems (respiratory, circulatory, muscular, etc.), and the ability to process signals rapidly.
In a modern grid, smart meters act as the nerve endings, detecting energy demand at each point on the grid. Their function is critical: A home that can't signal the grid is as helpless as a hand that can't tell the brain the stove is hot. Our old analog electric meters are just as helpless. They can’t communicate how much power is needed, when that power is needed, when the power is out, or when the power is about to go out.
In order to ensure that every part of the grid always has enough power, our generators constantly produce more than we need, keeping a spinning reserve to accommodate peak loads. Consider how much more efficient it would be to operate with precise information about where the demand and supply is at any given time—if the grid could automatically respond to a spike in demand in Waikiki by transferring surplus solar power from Kalaeloa, for example; or, by dialing down hotel pool heaters for a few minutes to allow the spike to pass. These demand response strategies would translate into less wasted electricity.
Smart meter-enabled, in-home displays can help customers take control of their energy use. Imagine if you paid for groceries the way you pay for electricity—in one monthly bill that doesn’t specify what anything costs. How would you know where to save? Like an itemized grocery receipt, an in-home display reports real-time electricity usage, showing customers exactly when their money is being spent.
For customers, this becomes truly valuable when they are able to take advantage of dynamic, time-of-use rates. In order to maintain a steadier flow of electricity, utilities can price power so that it costs less when more is available, and vice-versa. With detailed knowledge about their energy use, customers will be able to deliberately buy power when it’s “on sale.”
For instance, Pennsylvania utility customers were offered one free electricity day a week in exchange for slightly higher rates the rest of the week. Naturally, consumers shift some their most costly uses—like laundry—to the day they don’t have to pay for power. Similarly in Oklahoma, where 500,000 smart meters have been installed, customers under a time-of-use plan are realizing the benefits of being able to manage their own energy use—90 percent of those households have seen their electricity bills drop.
Why is it important to smooth out demand? Revving up the generators is like driving in stop-and-go traffic—driving steady highway miles is a lot more efficient. This efficiency yields a most valuable clean energy benefit: It hastens the retirement of dirty fossil plants and halts the construction of new ones.
Grid modernization won’t happen overnight. We shouldn’t delay it any longer. Consider all the other benefits we’ve gained from smart networks:improved safety—emergency dispatchers can locate and alert the closest first responders; extra security—fishermen can use GPS to find their way back home; and greater connectivity—people use Facebook to build relationships with families, friends, and even fellow community advocates.
It’s easy to list reasons to be afraid of change. And it’s even easier to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that our outdated energy model can serve future generations. But except for those living off the grid, our energy supply is a shared resource. A smart meter network is a first step toward enabling us to produce and distribute our energy more efficiently.
Do smart meters emit hazardous levels of “RF,” “EMF,” and “radiation”?
“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).
As described below, there is currently no consistent evidence that non-ionizing electromagnetic energy has health risks.
Are smart meters are hazardous to health?
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.”
Do smart meters cause cancer because RF is classified as a “Class 2-B Carcinogen” by the World Health Organization?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has worked to identify environmental factors that can increase the risk of human cancer. With that goal, WHO has researched hundreds of possible carcinogenic agents, and categorized them into groups:
|Group 1||Carcinogenic to humans||107 agents|
|Group 2A||Probably carcinogenic to humans||63 agents|
|Group 2B||Possibly carcinogenic to humans||271 agents|
|Group 4||Probably not carcinogenic to humans||1 agents|
Group 3 refers to agents that are “not classifiable.”]
To date, only one agent is classified as “probably not carcinogenic.” RF is classified in the next lowest group (2B), “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Many other common agents are also listed in group 2B, including examples like caffeine, carpentry, and coconut oil DEA (an ingredient frequently found in lotions and shampoos). WHO defines “possibly” carcinogenic to mean that there is: (i) “limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans” and “less than sufficient” evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals”; or (ii) “inadequate evidence of carcinogenicity in humans” but “sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals.”
According to the U.S. National Institute of Health, “there is currently no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk.”
Is it true that smart Meters don’t emit radio waves, they emit dangerous microwaves?
“Microwaves” are a sub-category of radio waves. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission explains: “Different forms of electromagnetic energy are categorized by their wavelengths and frequencies. The RF part of the electromagnetic spectrum is generally defined as that part of the spectrum where electromagnetic waves have frequencies in the range of about 3 kilohertz (3 kHz) to 300 gigahertz (300 GHz). Microwaves are a specific category of radio waves that can be loosely defined as radiofrequency energy at frequencies ranging from about 1 GHz upward.”
These concepts are shown in an illustration from NASA’s Tour of the Electromagnetic Spectrum. From the figure, you can see that non-ionizing radio waves (including microwaves) have a longer wavelength (and lower frequency) than visible light. More dangerous forms of “ionizing” electromagnet radiation, such as x-rays and gamma waves, have a much shorter wavelength than visible light (and a higher frequency).
Microwaves are often associated with microwave ovens. Because water heats up when it absorbs certain frequencies of microwaves, these ovens can heat food that contains water. But the general term “microwave” also describes the frequency of the radio waves used for many communications devices, including cell phones and smart meters. These devices operate at very low power, such that they cannot measurably heat the human body.
Do smart meters pose a security threat?
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?
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.
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.
Will smart meters give accurate readings?
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.
Will smart meters be cost-effective?
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.”
Do smart meters cause fires?
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.