What I've learned about smart meters

I learned some more about Smart Meters over this past week, and I'm no more comfortable with them than I was before. PG&E held an open house in Seaside last Wednesday. The people who were there were friendly and explained their program fairly well despite my surly attitude going in. The two impressions I came away with were that they really wanted to get this right, but that the company is acting too overconfident for my comfort.

As a technological innovation, smart meters are definitely cool. The things they can do now and will be able to do in the future certainly make a strong case for their deployment. However, some of the smart meter features can also be obtained with over the counter products, so smart meters aren't essential for consumers to monitor their own energy usage. 

PG&E is promoting these devices to the public on coolness alone. It worked for the iPhone, right? Well, not everyone is sold on the iPhone, either, and nobody is forced to buy one. It is clear now that PG&E grossly underestimated the public's suspicions of smart meter technology. Worse, by making smart meter installation rapid and compulsory for all PG&E customers, people feel imposed upon in a very un-American, Big Brother fashion. (Note to PG&E: People resent that - think Tea Party.)

It doesn't help
that PG&E downplays people's concerns. The two biggest worries are whether the meters' wireless transmissions may cause health problems and the challenges of maintaining a secure wireless network that contains private data.

On the health issue,
it is clear from reading the technical data that the RF (radio frequency) transmissions from individual smart meters is incredibly low, as low as or even lower than many other common RF devices. The meters use these transmissions to send your electric and gas usage to PG&E primarily for billing purposes.

According to all of the data provided by PG&E, the power level of these transmissions is way below the maximum exposure levels allowed by the FCC. However, I notice the scientific documents provided by PG&E only reference power levels at a given moment in time, and the maximum exposure over the course of a day from individual meters or other individual transmitters in the system. PG&E's studies do not discuss the cumulative impacts of blanketing entire cities with these transmissions from thousands of new sources, nor do they discuss any potential long-term effects of same over the many decades they will be operating. I also notice the studies do not address the effects transmissions may have on much smaller creatures, such as birds and other wildlife.

Isn't this the sort of thing that would normally require and Environmental Impact Report?

While signal strength is one issue, a related one is how frequently smart meters make transmissions. PG&E says meters do not transmit constantly, but intermittently, and ever so briefly - transmissions last just a few thousandths of a second. They say a given meter compiles usage data every hour, and transmits the data every four hours. But because individual meter transmitters have such low power, they can't all reach the company's access points. So each meter also acts as a relay for other meters, sometimes thousands of them. So while each meter only transmits its own data every four hours it can be relaying data from other meters anywhere from 100 to 1,000 times per hour, which means a transmission rate somewhere between every four to forty seconds. Technically speaking, that may be "intermittent" but to most of us that would be considered "constant."

A report was prepared by Richard Tell Associates, Inc. for PG&E on this subject. It states "The actual duty cycle of the meter transmitters will only be known once the system is in place and statistics can be obtained on its operation...." In other words, we do not know how often meters will actually be transmitting until after the meter network is fully in service.

If PG&E itself cannot determine such basic information, why are these meters being deployed statewide in such a hurry before all the facts are known? If these things don't work as advertised, we could have a statewide nightmare.

Speaking of nightmares, there's another problem. Sending data wirelessly means that anyone can intercept it without being detected. Should a hacker decipher the information, and it's more a matter of when than if, a hacker might disrupt power to individual homes, to entire neighborhoods, or even determine who is home and who isn't. And what's to stop a foreign government from monitoring and analyzing PG&E's transmissions? Hackers from some undetermined government managed to create a worm called Stuxnet that reportedly disrupted Iran's nuclear program and set it back a full year. If hackers can do that to a supposedly secure government program, how hard would it be to disrupt a wirelessly managed power grid?

PG&E seemed particularly overconfident
on the security issues, which scared the hell out of me.

Now, I'm not an expert.
Maybe my concerns are overblown and smart meters are the greatest invention since the transformer. But what's the hurry? Why deploy these things statewide before really knowing how these things work in real-world conditions? Let's demand that PG&E put the brakes on this technology long enough for the public to be sure it's safe, secure, and really in our best interests.


JR said…
Good article Toy - good research you did.

Security Issues - can enemy target the entire grid? YES, the only state of the art online security measures PG&E can use is defensive, and AFTER THE FACT. This means the GRID IS AT RISK.

Interference Problems - Pace Makers, metal in the body, home security systems, motion light detectors, automatic garage openers, old house grounding issues.....

PG&E continues to deploy as fast as possible. Don't rely on moratoriums or bans. Protect your own property now.

The only thing that can stop PG&E from installing a Smart meter on your private property is for you to protect your own property (other than tall fences with big dogs) is with a CAGE - Marina Fire Department was called by PG&E, and the CAGES are fine as the meters are still accessible and no fire hazard exists.


Build Baby, Build http://mocotp.com/posts/electrical-box-protector
JR said…
Personal invite: Come to the Marina Library, Community Center, Feb 24, 2011, 6:00 pm - Smart Meter Panel discusses, Passive vs Broadcast EMF, Health, Security, Privacy and Interference issues.
see http://mocotp.com/events
Would love to met ya Toy.
James B Toy said…
I don't think I can make it, but thanks for the invitation. Good luck.
JR said…
Lots of new stuff to write about.
Like the entrance of the Sierra Club SF that have entered the movement against SM. Did you know bugs are getting into the picture?


Not to worry, will have youtube videos in about a week.
James B Toy said…
It recently occurred to me that PG&E's studies do not take into account the effects of EMF on wildlife, including beneficial insects. I have noted that deficiency in letters to public officials.

I am also investigating what rights we have as property owners. The question I'm now asking wherever I can is whether there are any penalties for denying PG&E access to install smart meters. So far nobody, including PG&E, has indicated there are any. Maybe there is an "opt out" after all.
JR said…
SB37 is legislation...not in effect till 2013...too late. Opt out is still being worked out, ie. who bears the costs of non-wireless smartmeter and how all that will work together.

Do know that if you are the last hold out in the area....PG&E will cut your power. That's why neighborhood watch groups need to discuss protecting themselves,....or at least becoming informed.

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