Saturday, August 27, 2011

Smart Meters -- they know when you've been sleeping

Lovely County Citizen
Nicky Boyette

Carroll Electric Cooperative Corporation (CECC) announced on its website that it intends to install digital smart meters in 100 percent of its residential and commercial meters by the end of 2012. You might already have one.

Smart meters are electrical devices that record and monitor electrical energy usage in a home or business, and have the capability to transmit that information back to the utility company. Smart meters are seen as a vital part of futuristic smart grids which, in theory, will gather information from all over an electrical grid, make decisions based on the data collected, and hopefully make more efficient use of our resources.

Only a small percentage of meters in the United States are smart meters, but some sources expect 15-20 percent of meters each year to transition to smart technology. In fact, grant funds for smart-grid technologies were part of the federal government's economic stimulus package in October 2010.

The idea of a smart meter is that it can collect data on not only how much energy is being used but when you use it. Advocates point to the fact that smart meters can help customers make wise choices about when to use appliances and electronics in order to control energy costs. You would know your energy use by either looking at the digital readout on the device or, eventually, looking up your energy use on the utility website.

Detractors say collecting this amount of information about our activities and putting it in the hands of the utility company is a breach of privacy. The meters will know when we get up and go to bed or if we are even home and relay this information to a computer possibly far away.

Plans also call for antennae to be installed in appliances and electronics so they can communicate wirelessly with the smart meter. Naysayers say this would mean that you will not be the only one who knows how often you make toast or blow dry your hair. This would also mean that homes would have several extra sources of radio frequency radiation, and citizens are not comfortable with assurances from the utility companies. Some people are extra-sensitive to electromagnetic radiation and experience headaches, sleeplessness and fatigue, not to mention the problems with pacemakers and other implanted electronic devices.

Many states employ wireless smart meters which use radio frequencies to transmit their information back to the utility company. There have been countless protests over wireless smart meters from Maine to California, where town hall meetings have been rocked by shouts of concern over health issues connected to radio frequency radiation.

During a public forum in Maine in which many citizens voiced distrust of the safety of wireless devices, even the representative from the Maine Center for Disease Control acknowledged that there is little long-term evidence to prove the safety of smart meters, but there is also little evidence to prove consistently that the meters have adverse health effects.

CECC says on its website that "the smart meters being installed by Carroll Electric do not use radio frequencies to communicate. All communication to and from the smart meter is transmitted on existing power lines by using a secure embedded digital signal."

If this continues to be the case, that would mean that Carroll County citizens will not have to worry about another wireless device in and around our homes. Some observers notice that there is a hue and cry about the radio frequencies from smart meters by folks who customarily use cell phones, laptops, wireless routers and really enjoy their Nintendo Wii.

The CECC website also states that smart meters will be installed on all accounts. In some states, customers can opt out of having the devices installed. Other conveyance media like fiberoptic lines, phone lines and internet connections could be used to deliver the information.

CECC says customers will not incur increased costs to pay for this transition, but this has not been the case in other states. Portland, Ore., expects utility rates for residential customers to increase 1.2 percent to pay for the installation of its smart meters. Some residents of Naperville, Illinois, were up in arms because their utility bills doubled after they got smart meters, and some of the trouble was inaccurate meters. It is difficult for the utility company and individual billpayers to resolve these disputes.

According to some detractors, another inevitable outcome of smart-grid technology is that utility companies can implement time-of-use pricing, which means higher costs during peak use times, such as 9 a.m. till 7 p.m. This would be an unfair hardship for seniors who are home during that time, for people who work from home or at night, or folks home raising their kids.

Besides the fiery speeches at public forums across the country, there are also pyrotechnics related to smart phones. In April of this year, newly installed smart meters at a mall in Santa Rosa, Calif., "literally blew up" causing a fire which led to the evacuation of the mall. This is not the only case of smart meters either smoking, exploding, catching fire by arcing, or sending "bursts" through electrical lines causing damage to appliances and electronics.

Also, there is the vulnerability of the data that smart phones can collect, especially when it is transmitted wirelessly. We hear regularly of hackers getting personal information, so there is a natural sensitivity to knowing data about us can be stolen and misused.

And what about the meter readers, labeled as "carbon-unfriendly" by one source? It will take awhile for all utility companies to fully implement the smart meter technology, so manpower will have to do in the meantime. But at some point, meter readers will go the way of the eight-track tape, replaced by an upgrade.

There is a Facebook site devoted to stopping smart meters. There is also plenty of financial support pushing this kind of technology. We have only just begun to explore what they are good for or not good for, and some problems will be resolved as technology continues to unfold it secrets.

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