How Safe Are Smart Meters?
Central Maine Power sparks controversy with its new wireless devices.
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
Photograph by Sean Alonzo Harris
All summer long, Central Maine Power Company customers should have been receiving brochures in the mail asking them if they want a new smart meter installed on their property. If customers do not reply, they get a $125 smart meter, CMP’s new wireless, remote meter-reading system, at no cost. If they choose to retain their existing electro-mechanical meter, they must pay a one-time fee of $40 and $144 a year in perpetuity.
Obviously, Central Maine Power (CMP) and the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which imposed the charges, would prefer that customers go with the smart meter. But, despite the financial penalty, thousands of Mainers have already decided to keep their old meters because of concerns that smart meters may present short and long-term health risks, cause electronic interference, constitute an invasion of privacy, and sometimes result in overbilling, just to mention a few of the problems some folks have with the new meters.
CMP and the PUC, however, see the smart meter as the key to a bright, new energy future, one in which electric bills can be itemized by time and appliance, giving savvy consumers more information to help them manage their energy consumption. In 2008, CMP received $96 million in federal stimulus money to fund half of the $192-million smart meter system. CMP is banking on recouping its own $96 million investment through greater efficiencies. Ironically, while the federal stimulus plan was billed as a job-creation program, smart meters will allow CMP to reduce its workforce from 260 to 140 meter readers and to save millions in gas money on the two million miles a year meter readers currently drive. The company will also be able to disconnect power remotely and respond more quickly to power outages.
As of mid-summer, employees of VSI Meter Services of Ashton, Pennsylvania, had replaced 260,000 of CMP’s 620,000 electric meters with smart meters. Some nine thousand customers had opted out of the smart meter program. CMP says customers will benefit from more detailed information about their energy use, new time-of-use rates, the ability to use smart appliances, and to manage electricity for new technologies, such as electric cars, but there will not be any initial savings from the smart meter system.
“To the extent that there are benefits to customers,” says CMP spokesman John Carroll, “they’ll be getting it without a cost.”
“What CMP is not telling consumers,” says smart meter critic Elisa Boxer-Cook, “is that in order to fully use the smart meter you’re going to have to buy all new appliances with wireless transmitters in them.” Boxer-Cook, of Scarborough, is a former newspaper and television journalist who founded the Smart Meter Safety Coalition (smartmetersafety.com) in the fall of 2010, shortly before she filed a complaint with the PUC over the potential health risks of exposure to the radiofrequency (RF) fields emitted by smart meters. Boxer-Cook herself is sensitive to RF. Too much exposure to wireless technologies such as WiFi and cell phones gives her migraines. She can manage her exposure to most other wireless technologies because they are voluntary and can be turned off, but smart meters would have been mandatory without her intervention.
CMP, however, maintains that smart meters do not pose a health risk. “Is smart meter RF exposure safe? Yes,” states CMP’s product safety chart, which graphically maintains that the human body emits twenty times as much RF as a smart meter and that a cell phone emits 12,667 times the RF of a smart meter. Dr. Yakov Shkolnikov, the scientist who calculated the exposure chart for CMP, insists that, “RF exposure from Earth and the human body is persistent. No matter where you go, you’re going to get RF exposure. You can’t hide from it.” Shkolnikov argues that smart meter RF is “intermittent” and that the device is on less than one minute a day.
Boxer-Cook points out that Shkolnikov works for Exponent Engineering and Scientific Consulting, a company that specializes in mounting scientific defenses of corporate interests. Exponent scientists, for example, defended the tobacco industry against charges that secondhand smoke caused cancer, ExxonMobil against charges that a double-hulled tanker could have prevented the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and Toyota against charges that a design flaw caused its car brakes to fail.
“I think they have hired scientists to mislead their customers,” says Boxer-Cook of CMP. “We haven’t hired anyone. Scientists and engineers are coming to us to set the record straight.” Among them are Dr. Mikel Miller, a South Portland native who has worked as an engineer for Intel, Texas Instruments, and now the Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Miller wrote both to the PUC and the state legislature seeking to counter Dr. Shkolnikov’s assertion that the human body gives off more RF than a smart meter.
“The truth is,” Miller wrote to the legislature’s Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee, “the human body does not emit any RF. Radiofrequency (RF) covers a high-frequency band used for radio communications. Humans are not radio transmitters.” Miller also pointed out that while CMP says smart meters are only on forty-five seconds a day, they actually transmit up to 15,400 times day for fractions of a second that add up to forty-five seconds.
Even if the CMP smart meter safety chart is correct, it begs the question, “Safe from what?” The Federal Communication Commission exposure limits used in Shkolnikov’s calculations are thermal standards that apply only to the risk of heating and burns, not to non-thermal maladies such as migraines, dizziness, insomnia, stress and heart palpitations, and certainly not to the risk of cancer.
“There is no standard for safety against cancer,” points out CMP’s John Carroll.
But whether RF can cause cancer is a hotly debated issue.
On May 31, the World Health Organization/International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) “classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B), based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, associated with wireless phone use.”
“The World Health Organization is specifically talking about cell phones, not smart meters,” insists Carroll. But Boxer-Cook received an e-mail from the IARC clarifying that “the classification 2B holds for all types of radiation within the radiofrequency part of the electromagnetic spectrum, including that emitted by base-station antennas, radio/TV towers, radar, WiFi, smart meters, etc.”
“From the beginning,” charges Boxer-Cook, “CMP has spent time, energy, and money trying to discredit and dismiss health concerns, rather than respect and accommodate them. There has really been a total lack of respect for people who are suffering.”
In November 2010, pursuant to Boxer-Cook’s PUC complaint and those of three other women concerned about smart meter health risks, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the results of its review of studies of the health risks of RF, finding that scientific studies “do not indicate any consistent or convincing evidence to support a concern for health effects related to the use of radiofrequency in the range of frequencies and power used by smart meters. They also do not indicate an association of EMF [electromagnetic field] exposure and symptoms that have been described as electromagnetic sensitivity.”
Dr. Dora Anne Mills, who was Maine’s public health director at the time of the CDC report, says the new WHO/IARC classification of RF as a possible carcinogen does not contradict the CDC findings of no health risk, noting that there is a big difference between a “possible carcinogen” and a “probable carcinogen.”
“We are exposed to RF in this range or close to it all the time — from every electronic appliance in our homes, to wireless technologies that are in every neighborhood,” says Mills. “One would have to live and stay off the grid 100 percent of the time not to be exposed to them. The argument of RF causing cancer has been around for decades, but so far, has not been shown.”
Dr. Mills says she has no concerns about RF exposure whatsoever. “We have two children and I watch over their health like a hawk,” she says. “We also have a smart meter, along with our clock radio, TV, wireless Internet, and cell phones.”
The science surrounding wireless technologies and health is confusing, conflicting, and inconclusive at best. There is, however, little or no debate about electronic interference. Smart meter transmissions can and do interfere with such things as WiFi routers and Netflix. “RF interference is a fact of life in a world of cell phones, baby monitors, and routers,” says CMP spokesman John Carroll, adding that CMP has contracted with Tilson Technology of Portland to help customers troubleshoot interference problems free of charge.
Given the inconclusive nature of RF health risk science and the total lack of health risk studies on smart meters, it is not surprising that the PUC decided to punt when it came to the health and safety concerns expressed by complainants. The commissioners, saying that “CMP’s response that those concerns lack of credible scientific evidence misses the point,” decided the case based not on the scientific merits of the complaints but on two simple facts: CMP is a monopoly, and the PUC received seven, ten-person complaints about smart meters.
“Under the circumstances presented in this case,” wrote the PUC in its June 22 order, “it is clearly an unreasonable act and practice for a utility to ignore the concerns of a significant number of its customers and refuse to permit a smart meter opt-out option if doing so is technically and economically feasible and those customers assume and bear the additional costs.”
The PUC ordered CMP to provide two options to customers who did want a smart meter: Keep their old meter, or have one installed that only transmitted out.
The PUC also ordered CMP to notify customers before deploying smart meters and to give customers thirty days to opt-out.
“Maine is the first state, the first place in the world to get an opt-out,” says Boxer-Cook. “That is a tremendous victory. CMP did everything it could to fight an opt-out.” In California, more than forty municipal and county governments have enacted some form of local control on smart meters, ranging from opt outs to bans and moratoriums. In Maine, on June 1, the Bath City Council enacted its own 180-day moratorium, effectively adopting an opt-in approach such that CMP customers would have to make the affirmative choice to have a smart meter installed rather than request that one not be installed.
“Our real goal,” says Bath city councilor David Sinclair, “is that consumers be able to make an informed decision rather than have it made for them by CMP.” Maine’s smart meter opt-out, as previously noted, comes with a price. Customers can pay a one-time fee of $20 and then $10.50 a month for smart meters that only transmit one way (and do not yet exist) or they can pay a $40 fee and then $12 a month to keep their old electromechanical meters.
The PUC rationale for the charges is that the smart meter is now CMP’s standard equipment. “If an individual ratepayer wants something different,” explains PUC Commissioner Vendean Vafiades, “the cost of that should be born by that individual and not the ratepayers in general.” Prior to the PUC opt-out order, close to 5 percent of customers per day were expressing interest in opting out, reports CMP’s John Carroll. The figure sometimes got as high as 8 percent.
“Since the policy has been in place,” says Carroll, “we have seen interest in opting out drop to 1 percent a day.” And that’s precisely why smart meter critics see the opt-out fees as penalties meant to deter consumers from refusing smart meters. “You can’t say we’re going to charge you if you want to err on the side of safety,” says Ed Friedman. “That’s extortion. It’s not a choice if you have to pay to avoid the harm.”
Upset about the opt-out fee, Friedman, a Bowdoinham resident and chairman of the Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, filed a new ten-person complaint with the PUC on July 29. The complaint asks for 1) a stay on the installation of smart meters, 2) an opt-in, rather than an opt-out, approach, 3) the elimination of the opt out fees, 4) a CMP communications plan that informs consumers of risks, and 5) establishment of a smart meter complaint hotline in the Public Advocate’s office.
Public advocate Richard Davies agrees that the opt-out penalty should be eliminated. “We think there is a legitimate case to be made,” says Davies, “that people should not be paying for something that poses a potential health risk for them.” Davies also thinks CMP could be doing a much better job in general informing customers about smart meters. “You really need to be upfront with customers,” he says. “They are substantially lacking in useful information for customers.”
Davies notes that, before the PUC ordered CMP to provide thirty days notice along with the smart meter opt-out, the power company’s contractors were simply installing smart meters and leaving door knob tags behind to let residents know they had new meters. In Camden this summer, there were several complaints that VSI Meter Services installers were still doing the same thing.
Laurie Wolfrum, a mother of four and co-founder of the Camden Smart Meter Coalition, says VSI would have installed a smart meter on her home had she not been there when the installer arrived. “I told the installer I hadn’t received any notification, but that I should already be on the opt-out list,” says Wolfrum. “He said, ‘I’ve had a lot of people telling me they hadn’t been notified.’ ”
Some VSI Meter Services installers were also reportedly telling customers that they could not opt out of the smart meter system. The complaints in Camden and elsewhere prompted an August 2 conference involving a CMP delegation, PUC staff, the Public Advocate, and representatives of the Smart Meter Safety Coalition to discuss whether CMP was properly complying with PUC orders concerning prior notification.
CMP spokesman John Carroll says Camden was just one of the towns where CMP installed some 35,000 smart meters between the time the PUC ordered prior notification and the time the notices began to be mailed. “Unless you read [the PUC] order to order us to stop the project,” says Carroll, arguing that CMP would have had to stop installing smart meters for two months in order to notify all customers, “we’re obviously allowed to continue installing without every customer getting a notice.”
“They don’t want to have to notify anyone,” says smart meter opponent Boxer-Cook. “They don’t want anyone to know they can opt-out.”
Boxer-Cook, who attended the compliance meeting, says the Smart Meter Safety Coalition just wants CMP customers to know they have a choice. “The big push now,” she says, “is to educate people to make informed decisions about whether the potential benefits of smart meters outweigh the potential risks of smart meters.”
- By: Edgar Allen Beem