By Emma Bailey
Utility companies and their supporters are rolling out an unprecedented number of smart meters throughout the United States. Touting the benefits of these meters by claiming that they will improve electricity allocation, permit consumers to adjust their electrical consumption, and therefore save money and environmental resources, most of these improvements have yet to materialize.
Rewards for the average consumer have remained largely illusory. Most homeowners don't care to monitor and change their lifestyle habits to save a few dollars on their electrical bills. The government and the utility companies are aware of this and are consequently the ones who stand to gain the most from the significant collection of electrical-usage data.
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Utility companies can use information about peak usage patterns and electrical demand to determine pricing policy and increase electrical efficiency, but they can do other things with it as well. There are plenty of third parties who would pay a pretty penny for access to statistics regarding daily electrical use in a particular neighborhood or even within a specific home. Stores and other retailers can get an idea of the appliances that might appeal to customers and learn what times of day ordinary people are most active by poring over reports about energy use at different hours on each day of the week. The temptation for energy suppliers to monetize customer information by handing it over to other entities will always be present.
The U.S. Department of Energy has released a voluntary code of conduct for power providers, which aims to "encourage innovation while appropriately protecting the privacy and confidentiality of Customer Data." The code contains guidelines stating that customers must be able to access information collected from their household; companies must comply with federal, state and local regulations; and data security safeguards should be at the strongest level possible. The code is voluntary, however, which means that it may act as little more than a paper tiger: Companies that wish to contravene its provisions can simply elect not to abide by the code.
Even in cases where firms voluntarily enact the provisions of the code of conduct, other dangers remain present. Because smart meters use wireless communications to relay messages back to the utilities' central offices, anyone with the right equipment can intercept these signals. Many of the smart meters that have been installed to users' buildings do not employ up-to-date security procedures. This allows hackers to gain access to private data, which they can use for illegitimate purposes. Because some meters enable the supply of energy to be remotely cut off and restored, there are concerns that terrorists could access them to disrupt important infrastructure. Indeed, any authority, big business, or even individual with the ability to intercept the wireless transmissions can obtain and use the data, and there is little consumers can do to prevent it.
There are also some indications that the RF emissions used by the meters may be harmful to human health. Smart meters have been linked to cancer, cardiac problems, pulmonary disease and other health issues. Based upon these findings, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine has issued a letter calling for a moratorium on smart meter installation.
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While all of these potential problems are worrying, what makes them especially galling to consumer-rights advocates is the fact that customers often can't choose to avoid them. In many jurisdictions, such as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, the use of smart meters is mandatory by government law. Even when opting out of smart meter installation is allowed, users often incur substantial fees. For example, customers of Pacific Gas and Electric Company must pay a $75 setup charge and $10 per month to use an old-style analog meter rather than a smart meter. If smart meters are really being set up to benefit customers rather than for other reasons, then surely those who wished to take a pass on them would be able to do so without penalty.
There have been several extreme cases of individuals who resent being forced to accept "smart" equipment they don't want. In 2012, a woman in Texas pulled a gun on an employee of CenterPoint Energy who was trying to set up an unwanted smart meter at her home. In some cases, opponents of smart meters have been able to ban their installation, like in Fairfax, California, where a moratorium prohibiting smart meters was passed in February 2014. While there have been some temporary, local successes in halting the implementation of these meters, most energy providers have significant lobbying power and millions of dollars, so it's theoretically possible for them to steamroll anything that stands in their way unless they face determined, well-organized opposition.
New technology has a tendency to creep gradually into our lives until before we know it, we're reliant on its services and dependent on the conveniences it provides. In the case of smart meters, however, in the years since their implementation there's been scant proof they provide benefits to consumers or the environment and few reasons to support their introduction on a massive scale. As Steve Jobs once quipped, "You've got to start with the customer experience and work back to the technology, not the other way around." If meters were introduced "the other way around," and could be sold on the open market to individuals that are conscientious about their energy savings, their functionality could be challenged and improved.
Even those with favorable views of this untried equipment should be concerned about the trampling of individual rights that's currently taking place in the name of "efficiency" and "environmentalism." It's not easy being green, but smart meters surely aren't doing us any real favors.
Emma Bailey is a writer in the greater Chicago area who covers technology, entertainment and business. She enjoys reading novels by humorists, cooking at home during the week and eating out on the weekend, and watching indie movies (especially anything mumble-core). Follow her on twitter @emma_bailey90.