Get Smart

I was at the Orange County Fair this year (where my homebrew IPA won 2nd place) and came across the display for Southern California Edison. They were touting their new Smart Grid and Smart Meters that they will eventually install in every residence and business in their service area. Of course, this includes Our Town Tustin. I had heard about the new meters and I was anxious to talk to one of the SCE representatives about them. He gladly explained the technology and how the meters would be able to be read remotely. More importantly, he said, I would be able to have real-time access to my electricity usage via the internet that would allow me to make real savings by shifting my own electrical loads to less demanding times of the day. Being a tech and gadget guy, that intrigued me. Unfortunately, he did not have an example of how that would work. Being a union man, I did ask how this would affect the traditional meter readers and would we see layoffs in that field. He reassured me that there would be no layoffs and that most of those folks would find jobs elsewhere with Edison.

I forgot to ask the representative one key question: Will SCE be able to turn my meter on and off without my consent or coming out to my house. So, I started doing some research and found that yes, indeed, they can. One of their on-line brochures at SCE.com discusses how, when a family moves into a new home, they can call the company and their electricity will be turned on remotely. Gosh, isn’t that neat? Now I am beginning to wonder if our friends who attended the most recent Planning Commission and City Council meetings were on to something. Are the new Smart Meters good business or are they really designed, as the Stop OC SmartMeters folks purport, to control our lives, spy on us and dig deeper into our pocketbooks?

In several recent comments on this forum, John Oetkin, commented that, “The people of Tustin need to be informed about smart meters and their dangerous effects. They are not smart, not green, not safe, and not legal.” He further stated to go to Stop Smartmeters website for further information. So I did stop by there and the  more local Stop OC Smartmeters as well. What I found on both sites concerned me. Not for what I read, but how the StopSmartMeter folks could possibly piece their own brand of misinformation together.

The three biggest issues the StopSmartMeter folks have seem to be with RF energy that the units transmit, the false claims of savings by the electric companies and the fact that they can “spy” on you. They claim that the RF energy is going to swamp our neighborhoods with RF and that everyone knows that is bad for the children and old folks.  They equate the amount of RF as that of cell phones however. And, I hate to tell these folks but, there is so much RF energy already in the air caused by cellphones, GPS, satellites, microwaves and radios that a little more coming from an electrical meter will not matter much. The truth is, they should be more worried about the microwave in their kitchen and the electromagnetic radiation that comes from high powered electric lines in their neighborhood. The RF energy emanating from the meter on the side of their house will not add much to the RF in the air already. Although I question the efficiency of using radios transceivers to transmit information and instructions (they could do this over the electric lines themselves), I don’t think I am going to worry about a little more RF leaking into an already saturated environment.

As far as savings go, I see electrical rates doing nothing but going up. The cost of producing electricity, like everything else nowadays, is getting more expensive. That cost will be passed on to the customer, like it or not. The Smartmeters, according to SCE, will allow residents to check their usage and, in time, receive real-time messaging about cutting back on power demands during peak loads to obtain extra savings. From the SCE website:

advanced meters will provide customers with new information and control over their energy use, putting additional downward pressure on costs.

Other potential savings include reduced labor costs due to remote meter reads, turn-ons, reduced infrastructure replacement costs as some peak usage is shifted to off-peak periods reducing stress on the power delivery system, and reduced need to purchase expensive wholesale power to address rapidly rising peak demand.

So, right from their website, one can tell quite a bit about SCE’s push for this new technology. This doesn’t seem to be rocket science. In fact, SCE touts the smartmeters as part of the Smart Grid system that the entire nation has gone to. It is a high tech answer to moving energy from location to location on the nation’s electrical grid automatically, according to load demands. What that means is, when the demand for energy is high in California but low in, say, Nebraska, the system will automatically adjust the load to send more electricity to California. Make sense? Apparently not to the StopSmartMeters folks. They say that claims to energy saving are false. Unfortunately, about the only whitepapers they could find to back their claim are from Reuters – Africa and a 2 year old website article that claims overcharging but, again, does not show any real proof. In fact, if I read these right, the reason most people don’t realize long term savings is because they get tired of playing the load-shifting game and go back to old habits of energy usage. I’m a cheapskate when it comes to utility costs, however, and I see this new access to my own energy usage as very beneficial. I would play that game to the max (no, honey, we can’t run the A/C until after 7pm….. you don’t mind getting up at 3 am to do the laundry, do you…).

So, the only other issue I see is the allegations of spying on their customers by the power companies and their selling of your data to other companies, like insurance companies. We can dispense with the latter as the legislature already already seen fit to prohibit the selling of customer data.

What about the spying part? While one source says the SmartMeters only collect raw energy usage and send it to the utility, the SCE website actually says quite a bit about how, in the near future, the meters will be able to communicate with “smart” appliances and thermostats and, with the customer’s permission, be able to “adjust” power levels according to load. Does that mean SCE can invade your privacy? It’s starting to sound like it. In fact, this isn’t sounding quite so benign after all.

The SmartMeters will be able to talk to a host of coming appliances and thermostats that the meters can interface with. They are supposed to help manage peak loads and assist the customer in cutting down on non-essential usage of appliances. If that is the case, then how can the SmartMeters only measure raw power? Wouldn’t the electric company have to know that you have your A/C set to 72 instead of the company mandated 78? How about when you are doing your laundry or watching TV? If the meters are that smart, they certainly are smart enough to send that information back to the company who could then use that information to automatically cut your power or shut off certain appliances. Does this start to sound more like 1984?

So, how willing are you to let a utility invade your privacy and run your life? This is not the only utility that does this, by the way. If you have a landline telephone, they can shut your phone service on and off automatically. They can, with a warrant from a secret court, record who you make phone calls to, the length of those calls and even record the phone calls themselves right from the comfort of their own office. Gone are the days of the phony lineman climbing the pole a block away from your house to run a tap. So, what keeps the electric company from invading your privacy?

The same thing that keeps the phone company from routinely tapping your phone – vigilance by customers and watchdog groups. Legislation that we must all keep up on to make sure our lawmakers are not selling us out. Even the StopOCSmartMeters.com folks who may  really be into conspiracy theories but, who have an interest in keeping their lives private and separate from an increasingly intrusive government.

As for me, I will allow the installation of the SmartMeter on my house. As I said, I am a gadget guy and this one really intrigues me. So, I am willing to be your guinea pig. But, if the electric company ever turns off my TV while I am watching Sons of Anarchy, I’ll be sure to report it to you.

Power to the People…

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About Jeff Gallagher

My day job is a peace officer for the 2nd largest law enforcement agency in Orange County. I live in and love Tustin where my family and I have resided for the past 17 years. I am a highly moderate libertarian that despises hardcore Republicans, Democrats and anyone else who is not willing to compromise for the good of the people.

Posted on October 28, 2011, in Local Government, orange county, Tustin City Commissions, Tustin City Council and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Hi Jeff,
    I enjoyed reading your thoughtful article. Regarding privacy, I don’t know if you’ve had the chance to see the talk by Rob States, an engineer. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLeCTaSG2-U He talks about how they have (or will have soon) the technology to create chips which can read precisely whether you are using a hair dryer or any other specific appliance in your home.
    I am still doing research on the RF radiation. I’m learning quite a bit including its effect on bees and wildlife (and there are solid studies about that, according to B. Blake Levitt). I’m in the process of setting up my own Word Press blog. It’s in mock up form now. But I’m going to use it to explore the health and environmental aspects.
    Regarding the chips in the appliances (the second generation) which will “talk” to the Smart Meter: Cindy Sage who did a report on the radiation from the Smart Meters said that will mean increased RF radiation (yes, along with our other devices, if we have) in the home itself.

    Melissa Levine

  2. I don’t doubt the goal of the electric company is to eventually be able to determine usage of electrical appliances in our homes. RF, however, is here to stay. I see a better transmission vehicle for appliances tied to the electric grid, in the grid itself, no RF needed. But, as I said, we are already swamped with RF radiation. Whether it comes from inside our outside, a little more is not going to matter much. I’m more concerned when they want me to have an RFID chip installed in my arm. It’s already been tried once, although not so hi-tech. They used tattoos back then.

  3. Hi Jeff,
    I want to enter a clarification. I noticed in your article that you had said the StopSmartMetersOC people were comparing Smart Meters to cell towers, which you considered overstated. Perhaps you got that from the letter I sent to the Irvine City Council which I printed on the back of a flyer.
    I am trying to squeeze the following into my newly printed flyers in case others have the same response.
    “Someone thought that comparing the Smart Meters to Cell Towers was overstated. Is it? I’m not sure we know yet. I recall how when they were trying to put a macrocell antenna station into our entry monument at Turtle Ridge a few years ago, the cell company’s RF engineer reassured us how “low” the emissions were. So, when I was making that comparison, I was thinking of a bank of 60 Smart Meters on Amy O’Hair’s video, which were so strongly emitting RF, the tree in front died.
    Also, Cindy Sage, who is an expert in this field, says that a smart meter on one’s bedroom wall (and there are homes configured like this) is like sleeping with a “mini cell tower.”
    Regarding the RF chip embedded that you are concerned about, Cindy Sage says that in studies that (people or mice, not sure which) develop tumors at the site of the RF chip.
    Like you, I also have concerns about invasion of privacy etc. regarding these smart meters. I just have been so busy reading and doing my best to learn about the health issues, that I haven’t gotten to the other concerns (in detail yet.)
    (I started a website/blog called StopsmartMetersIrvine.com. Please visit. I’m a “newbie” to this, so it’s launched but still in development.

  4. On second thought, that’s way too much to go on my flyer, but felt good to write it out. :)

  5. I actually made the statement after reading several stop smartmeter websites. So, it wasn’t any one particular item that struck me. It is my opinion, however, that the effects of RF are overstated. We live and have lived with all kinds of RF, from cellphones to garage remote controls for years and it will only increase. As a 25 year Amateur Radio operator, I am highly suspicious of anyone claiming to have killed anything with transient RF energy. Years ago, I spoke with an electronics engineer who worked on the radar systems at Long Beach Airport, I asked him if the radar on Lakewood Blvd. could injure human tissue. He replied something to the effect that, if I stood directly in front of the radar dish for a day or so, I would probably go sterile but that the effect would be reversed shortly after I moved on. Remember, directly in front, like 10 feet away and we are talking several thousand watts of RF.

    One thing to note about mini and micro cells, Verizon used to sell a minicell for home use that could be tied to DSL or cable. That emitted RF right inside your home. Also, if you have a wireless router on your DSL or Cable modem for your computer, you have more RF than is coming from one of these chips.

    I’ll check out your site and this won’t be the last I write on the issue.

  6. Trying to post to your site…

  7. Hi Jeff,

    I appreciate your covering the Smart Meter issue.

    One of our goals at Stop OC Smart Meters is to Get The Word Out to residents in Orange County. To make an informed decision people should have both sides of the issue presented and then choose whether or not to have a Smart Meter installed. Based on your own personal review you have decided to agree to the Smart Meter installation. And that is the point. You chose. Good for you!

    I want that choice as well. I choose not to have this device on my home based on my research and the problems associated with the Smart Meter.

    The fact that SCE forced these meters on people’s homes without adequately informing their customers is a huge blunder on their part. People should be told about the detailed personal data collection, which will be solely owned by the utility with their “promise” of confidentiality. “From that we can infer how many people are in the house, what they do, whether they’re upstairs, downstairs, do you have a dog, when do you habitually get up, when did you get up this morning, when do you have a shower: masses of private data,” says a Siemens employee. Just like Facebook, Google, and cell phone records all of this collected data will be available for sale or for turning over to government officials upon demand. But the difference is that I can choose to go on Facebook, Google or own a cell phone. I have no choice with a Smart Meter.

    I love technology as much as you do and own many gadgets and devices. I also agree with you that watching my detailed utility activity will be informative and kinda geeky. It gives me a chance to unplug unnecessary wasteful electrical usage that I probably don’t even know we are using. I will be able to show my teenagers that their 20 minute hot showers are costing us a fortune and be able to deduct the cost of their wasteful showers from their weekly allowances. But where I differ with SCE is with who gets the control of all of this data and how it is collected. The computer on the side of my house has hardware that I do not have access to and software that does things I do not know about. Software and hardware updates can happen at any time and I do not know what they are capable of. Since it is on my house with my data then it should be controlled by me. And if SCE would have made a device that tracked my information that I could control, they would have had a winner on their hands.

    (Continued)

  8. (Continued)

    Wirelessly connecting all of our utilities (water, gas and electric) on a Smart Grid makes us vulnerable to hackers and cyber attacks. The remote shut-off capabilities are also causing cyber experts to question the grid’s safety. Former CIA Director states that the Department of Energy is “spending $30 million a year staying ahead of these cyber security challenges” and he questions whether this is enough. Of course, he doesn’t believe it is and concludes by calling the new Smart Grid “really, really stupid”. Why are we pushing forward when experts in the field of State security question the sufficient “protective measures” that are in place?

    As far as RF radiation, the long-term health debate has experts on both sides. The FCC uses standards based on 1996 data using a 6 ft. tall man with limited exposure to RF. Is this sufficient research? Why isn’t the FCC revising its research based on current day usage and the proliferation of wireless devices 15 years later? Technology has changed. Wireless usage time has changed for both direct and indirect exposure. Children, pregnant women, elderly, disabled, those with pacemakers, cancer survivors, those with compromised immune systems, etc. should be considered as well. By exposing everyone to unlimited RF, could we cause harm to the weakest in our communities? The burden of proof should be on the utility company to prove that their meters are safe to all members of the society.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful debate.

    Maureen

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