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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 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 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…