Smart grid tech's ups and downs
November 6, 2011 1:06 PM   Subscribe

A question about electric companies and smart meters.

A friend and their neighbors live in a private community in suburban Ohio. Recently, one of their neighbors noticed that a sub-contractor for their electricity provider was working at one of the houses where the owner was away. They were installing a new smart-meter. They were contracted to replace all of the meters in the neighborhood with the new smart meters.

The neighborhood is now up-in-arms. Many of the people are concerned about the health risks of the RF that these devices put out. Others are concerned about their privacy, and that the electric company will find out more about exactly how they use their electricity, and that down the road, they'll jack up their rates based on the information, or they'll cut their power during peak usage times.

I did tell my friend that I thought the meters belonged to the power company, even though they're bolted to their house, and that they can install whatever equipment they want.

So, how concerned should my friends be about the smart meters? Are their concerns valid? And, if you have a smart meter installed, have you seen any benefits or any downsides?
posted by crunchland to Technology (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Your friends should be zero concerned. If RF was dangerous, we're already screwed, since the air is entirely full of it all the time (you know, the reason radios can play things). The electric company already knows how much power you use -- I'm not sure what privacy concerns they have about giving them hourly-granular information about this... spikes in power at different times of day don't like... indicate anything. The meters are a great way to track your own electricity usage, and see how it correlates with your life. It is a good thing for the electric company to have more information (in an all-people sense) about how power is used, because it allows them to work better. Your friends and their neighbors sound like crazy conspiracy theorists, honestly.
posted by brainmouse at 1:33 PM on November 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

In 2008, I worked for an electric utility that switched over to smart meters. Your friend and their neighbors are right when they say

that the electric company will find out more about exactly how they use their electricity

That's the point of a smart meter. That's why it's "smart". Old meters just said "house X uses Y amount of electricity in period A-B". A smart meter can tell you (not just the power company, but you the customer) when that electricity is being used, so you the customer can know how best to plan your electricity use. For instance, f your friend's area's utility has "peak hour" electricity pricing, they can look at their usage and say "hey it's more expensive to use power during the morning and afternoon, maybe I'll run the washer/dishwasher after 9pm" or whatever.

You are correct in that the meters belong to the company.

Personally, I wouldn't be at all concerned, but then I'm also not one who thinks every new thing is trying to spy on me and report back to the government. If some of those folks think like that, which is not uncommon, they will probably be more inclined to be upset about it, but I really think those concerns are overblown.
posted by pdb at 1:36 PM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

The advantages are that you can now track your power usage remotely, and that your utility can better manage time-of-use billing. They are the first step in building a culture of conservation. A few ham radio operators are complaining about some extra noise in the high UHF range from meters. The data IIRC is encrypted and transmitted spread-spectrum. Security is a requirement of the standard.

Yes, your utility has the right to install these, and to interfere with them is criminal. Don't.
posted by scruss at 2:02 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do your friends use cell phones? Bluetooth? Wireless routers? Wireless baby monitoring devices? Stand in front of microwaves while they are in use? The RF in the smart meters is less than all of those.

Would they like to reduce non-emergency related blackouts and brownouts? Would they like to use more wind and solar energy? Would they like us, as a nation, to consume less electricity for things like street lamps and other automated uses of electricity? Our grid is very old, and not able to support our current needs. The smart grid is a solution to many problems such as these. The meters are part of the smart grid.

This is a national effort (actually smart meters are being used or rolled out worldwide), but yes the utility companies own the actual meters. The options are to use the utility as provided, or quite literally live "off the grid." They do not have the right to pry it off their house any more than they had the right to remove the older models.
posted by Houstonian at 2:22 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've been doing electrical work for close to 30 years. I've seen these programs come and go. There's far more to worry about outside your house regarding your health than smart meters.

On your second point, it beggars belief that anyone paying even a little bit of attention to North American society the past 30 years can write that organized capital (private or public) is putting these meters in because they love and want to help you.
posted by larry_darrell at 2:24 PM on November 6, 2011

I work for a utility company that installs smartmeters, so I am perhaps biased, but they are a Good Thing in terms of giving customers the ability to better understand and control their utility costs. The health risks are similar to the health risks associated with any other type of radio, including many people's morning alarm clock.

Plus, in order to read your current meter, the utility company probably sends their staff trolling around in your yard- dangerous work due to dogs and cranky homeowners. No one who has done meter reading work ever really wants to go back to doing it.

One note: please, do no uninstall your meter. In addition to being illegal, it's highly dangerous. Only the owner of the meter has records on exactly how your meter is connected to your natural gas or electric connections. You can often appeal to your state public utilities commission i for some reason you want it removed.
posted by samthemander at 2:25 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's been a real shock to me to see that health risks, of all things, are one of the major arguments against smart meters. That's a major failure in marketing and outreach from the utilities. The health risk from RF is provably zero, yet this issue doesn't die, which means it's not really about the health risk. I suppose smart meters feel intrusive and violating to people, and health risks are something concrete that people could seize upon as a vessel for these abstract and perhaps non-scientific feelings. That's a valid position; they are more intrusive than regular meters.

One of the long-running aims of smart meters is known as "demand response": shaping the aggregate behavior of power consumers to smooth out peaks in power. If you bring down the peak load, that's fewer new power plants you have to build, and thus big cost savings and greenhouse gas savings for everyone. Other major goals of smart meters include higher resilience through improved real-time monitoring, faster response to power failures, and improved operational efficiency (read: firing the guys who read the meters), all available because you have fine-grained information about consumption and demand coming at you automatically. So in general it's about reducing costs, and thus reducing upward demand on energy prices, which should in theory be a good thing for everybody.

Of course, the mechanism by which you achieve demand response is more sophisticated pricing and eventually some form of automated power scheduling, especially for big-ticket tasks like charging electric vehicles (so big that it is a special case). There is already a wave of home energy monitoring systems like Google PowerMeter and Microsoft HOhm which are designed to help you meter and understand your energy consumption; a future wave of these will be plugged into the smart meters so that there is real-time two-way communication between the home and the power utility, so that your home consumption can be scheduled and your cost minimized given real-time pricing information from the utility. This is the vision of the Smart Grid, but before any of this can happen the basic first step is getting a link between the home and the utility, which is the smart meter. It is indeed step one in something bigger. And consumers will indeed gradually lose the ability to just have all the power they want when they want it. But they are going to lose that anyway; power demand is growing so fast everywhere and the cost of building new plants is so high that the squeeze is inevitable.

They have been rolled out in a few places with mixed success. If you want ammunition against smart meters, you can simply google 'smart meter fiasco' and find lots of examples of bungled implementations, high costs, unexpected price spikes, and so on. But this is one of those steamrollers of progress that will be hard to stop. Grid modernization is a major infrastructure priority pretty much everywhere and there will be tremendous pressure from the utilities to roll out smart meters because of the huge savings potential they represent, and government will be on board because it is probably in the public interest, all things considered.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:27 PM on November 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

And consumers will indeed gradually lose the ability to just have all the power they want when they want it. But they are going to lose that anyway; power demand is growing so fast everywhere and the cost of building new plants is so high that the squeeze is inevitable.

PercussivePaul gives a very good overview but I disgaree with this bit. I don't think we will move to not having power on demand as a market model in even the long term, because I don't think consumers will tolerate it (in the US or Europe), and certainly industry and commercial consumers will not tolerate it and politicians will not support it. One of the things we don't know as yet is how consumers will respond to SGs. Whether they will buy in and manage their energy use proactively or whether they will just want some utility to handle it for them (though it might be a utility which offers more complex services than today). The degree of consumer flexibility is likely to be a big deal. I would suspect commercial and industrial consumers will take a pretty active role, but domestic consumers not so much. There is a lot of potential for systems such as having 2 buttons on your washing machine, the first might wash and/or dry your clothes now, the second might wash and/or dry them some time tonight, whenever the demand/cost goes down sufficiently. A would be more urgent but B would save you money.

As PP also says, smart meters may be part of the solution but that is not definitive as yet. UK electricity prices are set to go up in the next 10 years, it is estimated domestic prices will go up by about 20% to cover the additional transmission capability, capacity premiums to ensure there is enough power to cope with peak demand. and other costs. It is esimated that adoption of smart grids will reduce this to 16%.
posted by biffa at 3:24 PM on November 6, 2011

We have them all over the place in Minnesota (partly because the extreme winters make it hard to send out meter readers for months at a time).

You will not notice any real difference. Your bills will be more accurate, since they won't have to do estimated bills. The utility company could implement time-based pricing, but they probably won't because it's so unpopular.

There are some smart readers that talk to the cell phone network, and others that emit a very weak radio signal that's read by a van that drives by your house. You might occasionally see the van driving by if it's the latter kind.

The privacy risks are kind of silly. Isn't it better to have the meter read remotely than to have a guy from the utility company walk right on your property once a month?

The purported health risks are completely ridiculous.
posted by miyabo at 5:21 PM on November 6, 2011

It's a shock to me that people might believe the power company might actually be able to determine anything about you (other than your a typical American) from your electrical usage. Particularly when they'll let their banks know all kinds of very specific things about them by using their credit cards pretty much everywhere.

For most of us use the vast majority of our electricity will be for air conditioners and major appliances. So yes, the power company will mostly find out that it's hot outside and you are storing perishable food. They might be able to see a few things beyond that, but I'm trying to imagine a novel where the phrase "Some animals use the blow dryer more than others" is a chilling denouement and I'm not having much success.

If you're running an unlicensed aluminum smelter in your spare bedroom you might have reasons to be worried.

Not that I know anything about that.

posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:59 PM on November 6, 2011

(Our utility does encourage homeowners to let them install a remote air conditioning cutoff switch in your home, which they promise to use less than X number of times a year, in order to level off peak power usage days in the middle of summer. I could see how this program would be invasive, but it's totally separate from smart meters, and is opt-in only.)
posted by miyabo at 8:08 PM on November 6, 2011

There is concern over smart meters in Australia too. Basically I think the concern is that the power company can now see that peak loads in neighbourhood X are between 6-8pm, so now we're going to charge neighbourhood X an extra 10c per kWh just between 6-8pm to discourage use... but with no reduction in the other rates. So a price increase by stealth if you will. It's a legitimate concern but more to do with the politics of electricity pricing than the smart technology itself.
posted by dave99 at 3:15 AM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses. I pointed my friends to this thread, and I don't know if my friends are going to feel better about being called "crazy conspiracy theorists," but I hope they can get some useful information from it and feel better about it all.
posted by crunchland at 11:28 AM on November 7, 2011

« Older Opportunities for Writers   |   Home Design Gallery Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.