How Smart Are Smart Meters?

BY Spencer Michels  July 20, 2012 at 2:40 PM EDT

For the past few years, activists of various stripes — environmentalists, liberals, some tea party folks, and others — have been protesting the installation of smart meters in Northern California and elsewhere.

The meters send a wireless radio signal to the utility that owns them, in this case Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which uses the information to bill its customers. The meters also allow a customer to find out when he is using energy, and how to keep the costs down by not powering up appliances at peak times. And they allow PG&E to manage electric flows more efficiently, and to pinpoint outages with more accuracy and timeliness than ever before.

The controversy is over what else the smart meters do. Do they send out electromagnetic waves of such intensity that they can cause health problems? Do they penetrate walls of a house with their signals? Do they rob utility users of their privacy, by letting the company know when the customer is using power and perhaps what for? Do they really save energy, as the utility claims, or do they burn more energy, as the protestors allege? All these questions have been aired out before various city councils, and before the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which encouraged PG&E to install the meters more than six years ago.

The same scenario is being played out — perhaps with less intensity — in communities and states around the country. In fact, within three years, half of America’s homes will have smart meters — 65 million homes. While PG&E has been the center of the story, it has managed to install 9 million new meters, and has only another million to install. PG&E has steadfastly dismissed most of the challenges to the safety of the meters, though it is now allowing (with the CPUC’s blessing) customers to “opt out” of the program and keep their old analogue meters, which are read monthly by real human being who enters your yard to find the device. Smart meters require no meter reader. So far, 30,000 customers have “opted out” of the system.

The heart of the debate is whether smart meters cause illness. The anti-smart meter folks cite tons of anecdotal evidence of people developing headaches, seizures, migraines, insomnia, heart problems, arrhythmias, nausea, joint pain and tinnitus. They attribute these symptoms to the radio waves coming off the smart meters. Many of these opponents also say that cell phones and other wireless devices, plus microwave ovens, produce these same physical effects.

Besides the anecdotal reports — which proponents dismiss as imaginary — the anti-smart meter people point to dozens of studies done by a variety of scientists and groups, that they say back up their claim that wireless transmissions cause physical changes. Many of those studies deal with cellphone use, since there is little actual research on smart meters. For example, a New York Times article from last year said that “Researchers from the National Institutes of Health have found that less than an hour of cellphone use can speed up brain activity … raising new questions about the health effects of low levels of radiation emitted from cellphones.”

Smart meter proponents point to a different set of studies that seem to prove the opposite. The CPUC admits it is not a health agency, so in deciding to push for smart meters, it relied on “other agencies that do have experts on health issues,” according to Edward Randolph, energy division chief. In an interview for the PBS NewsHour he said that as far as the radio frequencies used by smart meters, the CPUC relied standards set by the Federal Communications Commission: “The smart meters meet those standards, no problem. So looking at the health effects from the federal standards that are in place, the smart meters don’t pose a problem.”

In addition, Randolph explained that the California legislature asked a scientific panel to review all the literature about smart meters, and that review, he said, “showed there is no evidence that the smart meters are creating health impacts that some of the folks are concerned about.”

I talked with one of the members of that panel, engineering dean Emir Jose Macari from Sacramento State University. He said, “There is no proof of any health impacts from radio frequency (RF) waves.” But he added, some people seem to be especially sensitive to electromagnetism; studies have been done on them and non sensitive people, “and the results are 50/50. There is no conclusive evidence that they can even feel the effects of radio frequency.” Still, Macari observed, people continue to object to the smart meters — people “who really don’t want the government or anybody intruding into their homes and seeing that the energy is being used.” Bottom line for him: “more studies need to be done.”

So what is a home owner or a cellphone user, to say nothing of a journalist, to make of these dueling scientific and almost scientific statements? You could read studies till you fall asleep (which wouldn’t take long) and you still wouldn’t know the answer. Harm from wireless signals — especially from smart meters — hasn’t been proven or disproven, though those who object to wireless signals probably need to document more scientifically their ailments. The burden of proof, given the prevalence of wireless devices, seems to be on them.

And that leaves us with one choice: present as much evidence as possible in the space available. Indicate the possible risk, and the fact many people are taking that risk — if in fact it is a risk. And examine and evaluate who is making the studies, a tough, lengthy job. Then hope you won’t be assaulted by someone with more studies “proving” his point of view.

Photo of smart meter by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg via Getty Images. Watch Spencer Michels’ full report on Friday’s NewsHour.