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January 18, 2011

New Urban Myth? Are Smart Meters Bad for Us?



There are some things in life that keep coming back no matter how much we think they’ve gone away. A couple of unrelated events the past few days have led me to one of these, and somehow I don’t think we’ve heard the last of it. The smart meter health debate is back in the public eye once again, thanks largely to a report from the California Council on Science and Technology. Last week they issued the first draft of a report titled, “Health Impacts of Radio Frequency from Smart Meters,” which the public is welcome to comment on until Jan. 31.

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I may be dating myself here, but remember when color TV first came out? If you were the first on your block, this would have been right around the time of Super Bowl I (which wasn’t a sellout by the way). It’s no coincidence that pro sports didn’t become huge until color TV, and we haven’t looked back since. What has this got to do with smart grid? Not much (as I now have zero interest in this year’s game after Rex Ryan gave Joe Namath reason to smile – nice segue, huh?) – but anyone from that time would remember the golden rule for watching color TV – always sit at least six feet back. Any closer would damage your eyes. Think I’m kidding?

If you’ve fallen off your chair laughing over such a ridiculous urban myth, then check out this 1968 article from Popular Science. There once was a time, when people actually read general interest magazines (not People), and as you can see from this article, the quality is great, and is every bit as informative as anything you’ll find on the Web today. See for yourself on page 114, as it explains the radiation emitted from TV screens is deemed harmless at distances of six feet or more. While you’re at it, scan through the rest of the issue – it’s a wonderful time capsule of American life just before consumerism and mass marketing really hijacked modern culture.

Fast forward to the present, and we have the same story unfolding over and over with smart meters. The California report basically concludes there are no material risks, saying there have been no documented cases of adverse health effects, and no additional standards are needed to protect the public. Furthermore, to deflect focus away from smart meters, the report suggests that people concerned with the risks of RF emissions should instead support research efforts that look at the broader spectrum. There is clear evidence that emissions from other household devices, such as microwave ovens, cordless phones, mobile phones, etc., are far higher than smart meters. Furthermore, smart meters are attached outside the house, and the signals emit away from the house, so it stands to reason the risk factor is relatively low.

This brings me back to color TV, and I’m sure we all know families where people routinely sit closer than six feet – though, to be fair, with screens getting so big now, this isn’t really enjoyable. I’m not a health scientist, but I haven’t come across any research or anecdotal evidence showing that sitting closer than six feet is bad for you. We’ve had 40 years of color TV, and you’d think we’d know by now. So, this may be an urban myth or it may not – and that brings us back to smart meters.

I got a call out of the blue last week from a woman in a small town who was trying to gather enough community support to express concerns about their utility making plans to use wireless mesh for their smart meter deployment. They rightly wanted to know if the utility took the potential RF health issues into account when choosing wireless mesh over other presumably safer wireline technologies. I’m sure this concern is being expressed around many other AMI deployments, but this is the first time I’ve been exposed to it on such a grass roots level. Whether this too is an urban myth remains to be seen, but perception is reality. Even if the RF risks are negligible, utilities need to be more transparent and provide a balanced accounting to support their decisions. Even though subscribers have limited options to what utilities end up deploying, they are equal partners in the long term success of smart grid. If they feel they’ve been misled or ignored, things will not end well.

Naturally, we all hope that smart meters are safe to bring to our homes, but there’s still a basic disconnect in the equation. We all know that cell phones pose some level of health risk, but that doesn’t stop us from using them. Unless there’s an elevated risk factor, that’s not going to change – mobility simply provides too much benefit.

That’s simply not the case with smart meters. They haven’t been around long enough for subscribers to view them as being a good thing. I think it’s safe to say that most of us see smart meters as being either benign or negative. Of course, if energy rates go down, that perception will quickly change, but I’m not holding my breath on that one. In that regard, I would think utilities need to do everything possible to get subscribers thinking positively about smart meters. The CCST report doesn’t resolve the debate, but that’s not really the end game here. I’d say it’s far more important to see how utilities use this information. The potential is there with the right messaging to make subscribers more comfortable with smart meters, but as the call I received the other day indicates, that potential has not yet been achieved.


Jon Arnold (News - Alert) is co-founder of Intelligent Communications Partners (ICP), a strategic advisory consultancy focused on the emerging Smart Grid opportunity. To read more of his Smart Grid articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Jaclyn Allard
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