The smart grid is supposed to deliver clean energy salvation, bringing renewable energy mainstream and enabling rate payers to optimize energy use and lower their rates through smart meters that provide two-way wireless communication portals to utility providers. That’s the vision. But it’s not quite how activists in Northern California would like to see it play out—not because they oppose clean energy, but because they’re concerned about the way smart meters operate.
The concerns are on multiple fronts, but chief among these are health concerns due to electro-magnetic fields (EMF) emitted by smart meters. (Others include worries that utilities could use the meters to collect data on energy usage and thereby infringing rate-payer privacy, and fears that smart meters will be hacked.)
Can consumers worried about smart meters put the kibosh on smart meter deployments—and, by extension, the smart grid as a whole?
There’s probably no better place to ask that question in Marin County, Calif. Yep, the Marin County brimming with nature lovers and hybrid vehicles. It’s also a hotspot (pun intended) for consumers who are more than a little wary of wireless communication.
The Marin town of Fairfax has placed a moratorium on smart meter installations, as has the town of Watsonville, in Santa Cruz County. Plus, 19 other towns and cities across the state are mulling similar moves. In Marin, activists have organized groups such as Stop Smart Meters and the EMF Safety Network are claiming that the FCC’s standards for safe radio frequency transmission levels for wireless devices (including smart meters) are antiquated and in dire need of updating. A number of PG&E customers in California claim that smart meters installed on their homes have caused the illness (with varying symptoms) linked to electrohypersensitivity.
But, thus far, the activists aren’t getting what they’re asking for, which is mainly time—time to forestall smart meter roll-outs—and more research into whether and how wireless transmissions from smart meters can cause health problems. These problems, says Joshua Hart with Stop Smart Meters, can range from headaches to cancer…or so he suspects.
The California Public Utilities Commission ruled on December 2 to dismiss a list of requests from the EMF Safety Network. These requests were for the PUC to re-open its review of PG&E’s Smart Meter program; to require PG&E to submit an independently prepared RF Emissions Study; to schedule evidentiary hearings on RF health, environmental, and safety impacts, to review actual Smart Meter program performance; and to allow customers to opt out of having smart meters installed on their homes.
PG&E, which says it is complying with the moratoriums to stop installing smart meters in certain areas, petitioned the PUC to deny the request, noting that the smart meters they deploy meet or exceed the FCC health and safety recommendations for wireless transmission, and that, under “normal conditions at a distance of 10 feet, the momentary exposure to RF energy during a transmission burst from a meter with SmartMeter technology is less than 1/six thousandth of the safety limits set by the FCC.
In denying the request, the PUC said that it must defer to the FCC on these types of matters because it does not have jurisdiction over RF electromagnetic fields. The commission also pointed to the important link that smart meters provide to the new energy economy, saying that they will "play an important role in implementing key energy policies adopted by California law."
Hart calls the PUC decision "inexplicable" and a clear indication that the commission is in PG&E’s pocket. But he says the Stop Smart Meters group will continue its efforts. "Our focus now is going to be public education. We’re worried that there are a lot of people out there who are getting headaches and not realizing why," he says.
"We feel like the government has failed the people in terms of health and safety on this issue."
But Katherine Hamilton, president of Grid Wise Alliance, a smart grid advocacy organization, says that the push-back that PG&E is experiencing in California is not representative of the wider effort across the country to modernize the electrical grid by replacing old energy meters with smart meters.
"PG&E is at the leading edge [by aggressively approaching the smart grid build-out], so there are going to be problems and some are unforeseen," she says. She says utilities need to be proactive in working with consumers to explain the benefits of smart meters and the role they’ll play in better managing energy.
"All of the studies I’ve seen show that there is no adverse health impact from exposure to smart meters," she says. (The Electric Power Research Institute has authored one of those studies.)
Of course, Hart and other activists point to studies that do raise concerns around health effects, and Henry Lai, a professor in the Bioelectromagnetics Research Laboratory at the University of Washington, Seattle, has written research papers that point to evidence that shows changes in cell structure in lab animals exposed to even low levels of electromagnetic radiation over time.
"The bottom line is that we don’t know what kind of effect can come up after long term exposure [to RF radiation]," says Lai. "It’s one thing to be on a cell phone for one hour per day, but if you are exposed to smart meter or a cell tower, you are exposed 24/7 so the effect is cumulative."
Hamilton notes that roll-outs of smart meters in other states, including Oklahoma and Vermont, are not being stymied by concerned citizens. Consumers in Maine, however, have also lodged protests against smart meters, pointing to health concerns.
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