Sunday, November 28, 2010

Post # 51 - Radiation and Smart Meters: One More Battlefield

Update (12/2/10): The California Public Utilities Commission today, by a 4-1 vote, declined to go forward with the requested health inquiry discussed below, determining that the matter was outside the agency's area of technical expertise. The CPUC decided that it instead should defer on this issue to the Federal Communications Commission. (Technically, the CPUC voted to adopt the decision of an agency administrative law judge dismissing the request for an inquiry. The decision adopted by the CPUC can be read here.)

Although we don't usually think of them in such terms, smart meters are radio transmitters, sending radiofrequency microwave radiation (RF) signals from both electric and gas meters. As the public has become more aware of smart meter roll outs, there have been increasing public concerns over whether such RF signals constitute a public health risk. While industry groups such as the Utilities Telecom Council
point to studies indicating no significant health risks, smart meter opponents are not so sure. And concerns over RF emissions are becoming a new battleground in the smart meter wars.

For example, in Maine, opponents of Central Maine Power Company’s smart meter installation have asked the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which approved the $192 million program, to stop it and investigate potential health effects. And similar concerns are being raised in California.

California, of course, long has been ground zero in the smart meter wars, largely due to the consumer revolts that have dogged Pacific Electric & Gas’ smart meter installation. Concerns over radiation entered the mix this year, and the EMF Safety Network, a group concerned about electromagnetic radiation, filed a request with the California Public Utilities Commission asking for a health study of PG&E’s smart meters. PG&E, in response, asked one of the CPUC's administrative law judges to dismiss that request, and the judge tentatively agreed.

However, in written comments filed earlier this month, the CPUC’s Division of Rate Payer Advocatesa unit within the CPUC charged with seeking the lowest possible rate for service consistent with reliable and safe service levels – recommended that the CPUC investigate those health questions. In its comments, the DRA argues that the CPUC has a responsibility to ensure that PG&E's wireless meters do not endanger public health. The DRA does not itself take a position on the health issue one way or the other. However, the DRA argues that the fear of potential health effects has already helped undermine public confidence in the new meters and must be addressed: "Unless the public's concerns can be put to rest, there is a very great risk that PG&E's SmartMeter deployment will turn out to be a $2.2 billion mistake that ratepayers can ill afford."

I certainly do not have the expertise to weigh in on the health issue, although it's unclear to me that smart meters present any concerns not already present with our ubiquitous cell phones, iPads, blackberries, wireless notebooks, etc. But there is a broader issue here. Fears over smart meter radiation are just one more example of apparent industry failure to anticipate consumer concerns. A major obstacle to smart grid advancement – indeed, perhaps the most important obstacle – remains the absence of real consumer input at the front end. Consumer concerns would be best addressed, and consumer buy-in better achieved, if issues such as smart meter radiation were fully debated before smart meters roll outs actually begin.

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