Smart meters raise suspicions

Mar 12, 2011 By Dan Vergano

Coast to coast, from Maine to Marin County, Calif., the number of homes being outfitted with smart meters that keep a close eye on homeowner electricity use is on the rise. And so is the number of folks who think smart meters are a dumb idea.

Some complain about the meters' accuracy. Some worry about potential burglars watching when they turn off the lights. Others center on fears the from the meters could trigger ringing ears, headaches, nausea, sleeplessness and worse. There's no medical evidence for the concern, but people still worry.

"I'm old enough to remember running behind the DDT trucks as a child (which sprayed the insecticide as a gas cloud to kill mosquitoes), and everyone told us those were safe," says South Portland, Maine, Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis. She had her home's freshly installed smart electricity meter removed last fall. "It feels the same way now when people say smart meters are no problem."

Nationwide, some 3 million homes have smart meters, digital electricity gauges equipped with wireless communications, according to the federal Department of Energy, DOE. According to the utility industry's Institute for Electric Efficiency, about 65 million smart meters will be working in U.S. homes by 2020.

The meters mean the end of the meter reader wandering into the backyard to record numbers off the whirling gauges. Instead, a either goes directly to the utility company over power lines or is sent by cell phone signal. The meter puts access to that same information inside for the homeowner to see.

"For consumers, it really is about empowering them to make choices about their ," says DOE's Stephanie Mueller. Hooked to the coming "smart" , homeowners with smart meters should be able to select pricing plans that let them purchase juice at off-peak hours when it is cheaper, saving them money and the power company the extra cash it spends to run generators during peak afternoon hours.

Boosted by $4.5 billion in federal smart-grid spending over the past two years, 140 power company projects have started installing smart meters in homes.

"A lot of smart meters are being installed quietly, and with no complaints," says Intelligent Utility magazine's Kate Rowland. "The success stories aren't noticed, while a handful of complaints get all the media attention."

One of the utilities getting attention is Central Maine Power, which installed, and removed, the smart meter in De Angelis' house. The utility matched a $96 million federal grant last year to start installing 650,000 meters across southern Maine. But with only about 56,000 in place, the meters have become political footballs. The state utility commission will hear complaints in a March 16 meeting, and Maine Gov. Paul LePage says he favors letting homeowners "opt out."

Various complaints dog the technology

Similar protests, including arrests and demonstrations, have bedeviled Pacific Gas & Electric's rollout of smart meters across Northern California. And in Texas, the power company Oncor received hundreds of complaints about the accuracy of its new smart meters, leading the state utilities commission to hire independent analysts to confirm their accuracy.

Complaints have come in various flavors:

-Accuracy. In both California and Texas, higher bills led to independent audits of smart meters. A lawsuit by a Bakersfield, Calif., resident Peter Flores, who said his monthly bills went from $200 to $500, halted installation of meters there. A hot summer in California and a cold winter in Texas seem to be partly at fault for the anger, the audits concluded. But misperforming meters have led to utilities handing out refunds, says Mark Toney of The Utility Reform Network, or TURN, consumer group in San Francisco.

-Security and privacy. Smart meters can communicate when power demands go up or down at individual houses, leading to more anxiety. "Who is getting the information about when my garage door is going up and down?" De Angelis asks. "I don't want to come home and find my house has been ransacked by someone who knows when I'm gone." For this reason, the Energy Department and most states require rules that prohibit sharing such data in smart-grid designs. But with firms such as Google and Microsoft marketing software to manage home power that will rely on signals, De Angelis and others worry about private data leaking to the open market.

-Health. In an era of cell phone and power-line worries, news that a radio-frequency-equipped meter has been installed on your house worries some homeowners. Such concerns led to the California Council on Science and Technology issuing an independent report in January that concluded smart meters delivered less radio frequency energy to homeowners than cell phones or microwave ovens. Both the Food and Drug Administration and World Health Organization found no evidence linking such radiation to health problems.

"In the absence of information, people assume the worst," says Peter Honebein of the Customer Performance Group in San Diego, an industry consultant. Around San Diego, Georgia, Ohio and the District of Columbia, where smart meters were rolled out only after utilities made intense efforts to educate customers, there have been far fewer complaints.

De Angelis sees the value in that. "I felt like it would be a lot 'smarter' if they had answered my questions before they installed it."

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epsi00
5 / 5 (4) Mar 12, 2011
Well in Toronto, canada, every home that was equipped with a smart meter has seen its bill increase dramatically. It's hard to rationalize this increase across the board when the smart meters were "marketed" as a way and a tool to save the customers money on their utility bill. It started to look like a scam designed by utilities companies to make more money. It's very hard to rig a mechanical meter but it is not known how easy it is to do so with smart meters. It reminds me of cops going out and issuing tickets when the city needs a bit more money to spend. The customer is at the mercy of the utilities companies which do not always deserve our confidence.
The sad thing here in Ontario is that the smart meters were mandated by the provincial government and the customer cannot opt out. The only way out is to go back to using candles and sticks.
epsi00
4 / 5 (1) Mar 12, 2011
Smart meters started to sound a lot more like " smart companies, dumb users " ( or at least presumed dumb ).

Every time you take control away from a user and put it in the hand of the companies ( which benefit from it ), you are opening the door to abuse of all kind.

What guaranty do we have that a utility company won't be sending a signal back to increase consumption and re-read it as real use? None. We just have to take their word that it won't be done. And if you believe it won't, just look up the complaints against the phone companies.

The utilities companies have just become Oil companies. You need to boost your profits, just increase the price at the pump any time you want to and blame it of the H1N1 virus.
Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Mar 12, 2011
Well, not the H1N1 virus, but the H1N1 meme - ignorance.

We record, calculate and report our bill each month. The local coop has ~2500 meters among ~2000 homesites, some not occupied year around.

'Smart meters' were part of the local argument FOR 'broadband by powerline' BPL internet access. Given the difficulties with BPL, there ain't gonna be that kind of smart meters here.
dogbert
not rated yet Mar 12, 2011
Smart meters are being installed now to allow variable pricing later. Instead of charging you for your usage, the electric companies will be able to charge you various premium charges according to the time you use electricity.

Watch TV after work, cook, wash clothing? That will be a premium charge. Turn off the lights to sleep? That will be a discounted charge.

It is all a method to justify larger charges.

Your bill has probably not yet been divided into premium and discount usage, but it is coming and you will pay much more for your energy when it does.

Note that our federal government is giving federal grants to utility companies to install these things.
epsi00
4.5 / 5 (2) Mar 12, 2011
The variable pricing will start early in June in Ontario, canada. Discount usage was going to be set from 9:00pm to 6:00am and on week-ends so that utilities companies can charge a premium if you cook or watch TV or use power before 9:00pm. That got the public really mad so the government decided to lower the cutoff to 7:00pm ( which is still a ridiculous cutoff) for premium pricing so that they can get re-elected again.

Now, we all have to equip ourselves with crank radios and crank tv's or produce our own power in any way we can.

It's nothing new really. Anytime a big company wants more money, they find a way to get it with the help of politicians who are there apparently only to serve them. But the salaries never follow and when people get a raise, it's usually tiny and does not even cover inflation.
Parsec
3 / 5 (1) Mar 13, 2011
The costs of any product should match as much as possible the costs of producing the product. Electricity is no exception.

It costs utilities more to produce/buy power during periods when usage is high then it does when usage is low. So they should charge more for that power.

But there is a twist in the panties here. Installing smart meters and starting to charge more for higher usage will result in a lot more overall revenue AND much higher bills. This is because PEOPLE USE MORE POWER WHEN USAGE IS HIGH! Until everyone adjusts their lifestyle, this will remain true.
Michael_Schlabig
3 / 5 (1) Mar 13, 2011
the government is giving money to the power companies to install these things as a part of a new plan by your local rethuglicans to charge even more for an already bloated system. It's the same as the oil, prices of gas do not go up on the same day as a riot i don't care how well connected the countries are they are charging more because they can. It happened when bush jr sent troops over to the middle-east, we saw rising prices then and we will continue to see them here too until we protest. The power companies have been sitting on patents for years that would free us completely from being on grid and thus having to pay them anything but no one is complaining about that since it's a little known fact.
Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Mar 13, 2011
The power companies have been sitting on patents for years that would free us completely from being on grid and thus having to pay them anything but no one is complaining about that since it's a little known fact.
Thanks for the booster vaccination against the H1N1 meme (from above). Yes, it is a very "little known fact"! (retired NPP operations/testing)
Skeptic_Heretic
4 / 5 (1) Mar 13, 2011
The ideology behind Smart meters is closer to the Cellular phone pricing market with "nights and weekends" nonsense. The problem is, unlike a phonecall about nonsense bullshit, I can't exactly just not run my refridgerator between 7am and 7pm. Same with my home heating, etc.

I think the variable rate charge is not going to pan out. The goal of smart meters should be to more accurately control and account for the spin up/spindown of generators and delivery, as well as to discover faulty/failing equipment, and to perform line switching, without the need for large expense in tracking down problems, or requiring end users to report outages to get results.
Yes, it is a very "little known fact"! (retired NPP operations/testing)
Then get some evidence and start drawing attention to it. Staring at trash in the street is useless unless you're going to pick it up and do something about it.
SumGuy
not rated yet Mar 13, 2011
It's been proven that the cost of these meters (both in terms of their up-front costs and the ongoing maintenance and operating costs) does not justify their use for residential homes because the energy usage of a typical home does not merit the need or benefit from time-of-day metering. To put it bluntly, your average home doesn't use enough electricity over the course of a day or month or year to make time-of-use billing financially viable or effective when you factor in the costs to set up and operate a system to perform the actual measuring and billing. It will be home owners that will subsidize the cost of the billing system through higher rates that in the end will do little to change their daily usage pattern. A typical decision - like whether or not to turn on your AC for an extra 4 hours - will likely cost a homeowner an extra 50 or 75 cents on their bill that day - about the same or less than a coffee. They will choose to be comfortable every time.
ormondotvos
2 / 5 (2) Mar 13, 2011
Thank you, folks, for adding to my store of proof that the internet isn't making people any smarter. All the information you need to properly assess smart meters is readily available, but it's much more fun to blather on and spread stupid and unverifiable paranoid fantasies, or "woo" as we say in science.

Smart meters pay for themselves by leveling out usage, and making it unnecessary to build or run peaking plants.

There is no significant radiation. The meter actually works the same way. The really important way to reduce your bill is to think about it, especially the tiered pricing, which rises from about twelve cents to about forth eight cents a kilowatt-hour pretty quickly.

It will get worse as fossil fuels are taxed to prevent global warming, which is also real.
SumGuy
5 / 5 (1) Mar 13, 2011
> Smart meters pay for themselves by leveling out usage, and
> making it unnecessary to build or run peaking plants.

What a load of crap. When you have thousands of individual home owners all collectively making a decision on a hot summer day that they'd rather spend an extra 50 cents for "peak demand" electricity to keep them comfortable in the afternoon in their own home, you still end up needing your "peaking plants" anyways, because time-of-use billing and differences in peak-vs-non-peak rates are not high enough to cause a change in household usage when we're talking about maybe a dollar a day difference AT MOST. That's chump-change for your average household.

Your smart-meter plan will do nothing to alter human behavior or the desire for comfort (and face it - it's the Air Conditioner that is the real problem here - if you even want to call it a problem). If it wasn't for the AC, this would not be an issue.

And smartmeters are not registered by the local standards branch.
rwinners
not rated yet Mar 14, 2011
>Your smart-meter plan will do nothing to alter human behavior or the desire for comfort (and face it - it's the Air Conditioner that is the real problem here - if you even want to call it a problem). If it wasn't for the AC, this would not be an issue.<

Actually, here is it the heater... specifically the electric heater. We seldom run air cooling, if at all.
SumGuy
not rated yet Mar 14, 2011
> Actually, here is it the heater... specifically the electric
> heater. We seldom run air cooling, if at all.

I don't know where you are, but here in the mid-west (Michigan, Ontario, Ohio) we heat with natural gas, so our electricity usage is pretty constant during spring / fall / winter. It's July and August when all our air conditioners are going 24 hours a day for a week or two at a stretch that is the reason why more expensive "peaking" power is purchased from special generators or imported from other areas.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Mar 15, 2011
I don't know where you are, but here in the mid-west (Michigan, Ontario, Ohio) we heat with natural gas, so our electricity usage is pretty constant during spring / fall / winter
You still use electricity to fire the heater, pump the water and air, and to move the heat through the house. You don't use as much, but you still use a good deal of electricity to do so. THen take a look at your fridge. That's one of the largest power sinks in your home. Then if you have a dishwasher, washer, dryer, etc. All major energy sinks.
SumGuy
not rated yet Mar 15, 2011
You still use electricity to fire the heater, pump the water and air, and to move the heat through the house. You don't use as much, but you still use a good deal of electricity to do so.


Wrong. "Fire the heater" ? A natural gas furnace and water heater doesn't use much in the way of electricity. The furnace fan doesn't really use much - especially if it's ECM motor. If it's conventional PSC 1/2 or 1/3 hp motor, then it's using about 8 kw-hours of energy per day (assuming it's running 16 hours per day, every day). At 15 cents per kwh, that's about $1.2 per day.

"Pump the water" - sorry, I'm on municipal water, so there's no energy used for that in my house.

Then take a look at your fridge. That's one of the largest power sinks in your home. Then if you have a dishwasher, washer, dryer, etc. All major energy sinks.


They are not seasonal - they contribute to base-load, and they are small loads compared to your central air conditioner.