Address Smart Meter Concerns with Communication about Benefits

Smart meters are a source of contention in some areas of the USA, slowing down Smart Grid progress. What is it about a communicating meter – one that uses radio frequencies to transmit consumption information – that is causing opposition? Reasons fall in three categories. The first category is meter accuracy – smart meters are believed to be inaccurate devices that create bills that do not reflect actual use.   A second category focuses on environmental health concerns about radio frequencies (RF). A final area of opposition focuses on control – who decides what technology should be in communities and how energy consumption data is used. For the full benefits of the Smart Grid to be realized, all of these concerns need to be addressed with clear and consistent benefits messages and education from utilities, state regulators and federal agencies, meter vendors, environmental groups and community leaders.

Why? Smart meters allow consumers to actively participate in their consumption of electricity. Participation means knowledge to make informed decisions about how and when to use appliances that consume large electricity loads. Participation also means opportunities to enroll in programs where consumers can voluntarily reduce their electricity consumption in exchange for better electricity rates or avoid electricity use at its most expensive times. These forms of participation mean that utilities can avoid investment in expensive generation facilities to handle peak loads – often answered with natural gas turbines. Although natural gas is cleaner than coal, it is by no means a clean form of energy because it still emits CO2. And any utility investments in peak power ultimately are paid by consumers. Therefore, smart meters deliver benefits to individuals and communities in addition to utilities.

The first category of concern is easiest to address. Utilities have demonstrated through side by side comparisons that smart meters are more accurate than the electromechanical meters they replaced. Once people have the facts about the accuracy of smart meters, and utilities have streamlined and consumer-friendly processes in place to address billing questions and/or set up comparison tests, these concerns are abated.

Environmental health concerns deserve serious attention. And to give it due consideration requires a mini-tutorial about electromagnetic (EM) energy and spectrum, including RF spectrum for wireless communications. The EM energy spectrum essentially consists of frequencies and wavelengths, and any EM frequency multiplied by its wavelength equals the speed of light. The EM spectrum is a continuum of frequencies for electricity, AM and FM radio, TV broadcast signals, microwave communications and cooking, infrared, the light waves human eyes detect, those bad UV rays that cause sunburn, and x-ray and gamma rays. The EM spectrum is both visible and invisible to us. And invisibility is a major topic in this discussion.

Wireless communications play largely invisible roles in our daily lives. Wireless communications are commonly used in grocery stores and hospitals; remotely lock/unlock cars; track inventory through RFID tags on items in retail businesses; deliver traffic light signal controls; attract people to coffee shops in search of free WiFi access; open our garage doors; give us workout feedback through wireless heart monitors; rescue us with avalanche beacons; and give us convenient communications capabilities via mobile phones and wireless networks in homes and businesses. Wireless in-vehicle communications, called telematics, are expected to be in place in almost 50% of new cars by 2017. We may not be the antenna a signal is seeking, but we marinate in frequencies.

People express concern about sensitivities to various EM frequencies. People like me who sunburn easily – well, we get the sensitivity argument, and take steps to mitigate risks by limiting exposure to the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. The World Health Organization (WHO) has research and reports about EM and health, and the American Cancer Society issued a statement about it.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have also issued statements regarding RF impacts.  Without credible, scientifically-reviewed studies that can identify a direct cause and effect to human health for frequencies that range from 50-60 Hz (electricity transmission frequency) to mobile devices, the common consensus is that anyone concerned about risks of EM in general and RF in particular should take steps to reduce exposure.  That is difficult in the modern world.  For example, I can detect 15 wireless LANs in my suburban home office in Silicon Valley.

Aside from humans, other environmental health concerns focus on effects of RF frequencies on species such as bees.  I like bees and am very concerned about the stresses that bees face in doing their irreplaceable job in pollinating food crops.  There’s no scientific consensus about RF impacts to bees, and some studies point to other factors like viruses or loss of habitat as more likely to contribute to their declining numbers.  Personally, I’d like to find a frequency that kills mosquitoes. 

Given the sheer abundance of wireless devices communicating around us in the environment, why are smart meters singled out as the culprit of RF environmental sensitivities?  People are more likely to blame something that is visible – like a smart meter on an exterior wall – than the invisibility of other wireless devices and applications.  We fear what we don’t understand, and history is filled with scapegoats.  Additionally, if we don’t understand how we benefit from smart meters, then the risks, however, small, don’t seem worth it.  Do people really debate the risks of RF exposure before buying a Wii system?  Probably not, because they believe the benefits of entertainment outweigh risks.     

Utilities can do a better job providing basic information about EM spectrum, RF applications, and smart meter frequencies, especially the total amount of daily time that meters are actually transmitting or receiving data.  When consumers understand that smart meters communicate for less than 5 combined minutes in a 24 hour period and compare that to the amount of daily time spent playing Wii games, shopping in a grocery store, or chatting on a mobile phone, it could change perspectives.  This information needs to be organized into user-friendly information, not a collection of website links that force consumers to hunt for answers.  It also needs to be delivered in training to frontline resources that interact with consumers such as customer services representatives and workers in the field.  Utilities also need to communicate the benefits of smart meters at individual and community levels and share their visions of how smart meters will enhance consumer experiences.    

The control concerns about smart meters will be addressed in my next blog.