U.S. electric utilities are installing huge numbers of advanced electric meters across the country. These devices promise to enable new demand-response and time-of-use pricing schedules and improve overall distribution system performance. Utilities have dubbed these measuring and monitoring tools “smart meters,” but critics say the utilities’ deployment plans have been far less intelligent, with some customers fearing health and privacy problems and choosing to pay a premium to keep their traditional analog models.

Problems began in 2009, when California utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) initiated its smart meter rollout in Bakersfield, and customers there saw their electricity bills climb. PG&E admitted some meters had failed—less than 1 percent, according to the utility—but that the bill changes were due to rate hikes it had put into place at the same time old-fashioned analog meters were traded out for new digital models.

Just as those fires were being put out, Northern California customers began complaining the new meters, which use radio frequency (RF) communication technology to connect with the larger grid, were making them sick.

“The range of health effects they claim is astounding,” said Russ Henderson, smart grid service research analyst with Chartwell, an Atlanta-based market--research firm focused on gas, water and electric utility issues.

Those complaints set off a public relations firestorm that threatens installations across the country. Now, public utilities commissions in some states are forcing utilities to offer alternatives for consumers who don’t want smart meters installed at their residences. Several utilities now offer opt-out plans, without getting into a discussion regarding health complaints.

“That’s up to the Federal Communications Commission to evaluate,” he said. “They have said, in the past, the smart meters are safe.”

Many find the RF complaints puzzling.

“RF is everywhere already,” said Richard Pate, an Indiana-based consultant who has aided the smart meter deployment efforts of a number of utilities. Wireless home networks, many remote control devices and, of course, cell phones all are based on RF communication, Pate said.

“Anything wireless is transmitting the same kind of RF a smart meter transmits, and a smart meter uses much less,” he said.

As of mid-March, Nevada’s NV Energy, Central Maine Power, Vermont’s Green Mountain Power, Central Vermont Public Service, and the municipal utility in Naperville, Ill., have joined PG&E in announcing some form of opt-out effort.

The opt-out programs can take several forms. Recalcitrant PG&E customers, for example, will pay a one-time fee of $75 and $10 per month for a manual meter reading. Opt-out customers of Central Maine Power have the option of a $40 upfront fee and $12 per month for analog-meter reading or installing a digital meter with the RF communication feature disabled for a one-time $20 charge and monthly $10.50 charge. Nevada Energy will install digital meters for everyone and use drive-by meter readings instead of direct, digital information transfer; the fee structure has not yet been established.

Smart meters already have proven their worth in aiding utilities’ recovery efforts, according to Pate. He said the devices helped utilities in Southern cities hit by storms last spring get back to normal more quickly than they could have otherwise.

“It helped them be much more precise” in identifying problems and problem areas, he said.

That precision comes from the information more sophisticated meters provide to utility control centers. For example, some meters are programmed to send a last-minute SOS-type signal just as they’re about to lose power. This signal means road crews don’t have to wait for a homeowner’s phone call to track down an outage. Each smart meter not installed means one fewer data point during such recovery efforts.

Smart meters also have been promoted as a tool for homeowners who want to reduce energy expenses, thanks to the time-based rate programs the devices could enable and the connections to home area networks. However, utilities have been slow to roll out new rates to residential customers, and private industry is stepping into the breach with devices that allow monitoring and control of lighting systems, thermostats and even individual plug loads (editor’s note: stay tuned for an article on plug loads next month). Of course, this equipment all requires a wireless Internet connection, which operates using RF communication.

According to Henderson, participation rates in existing opt-out programs are low enough to ensure overall data-collection efforts won’t be affected.

“Utilities have made an effort to make sure there aren’t entire neighborhoods that opt out,” he said.

In fact, many smart meter opponents decide to opt in once they see what opting out will mean for their electricity bills. Central Maine Power anticipated 1.5 percent of its customers would opt out of its smart meter installation program, and only 1.2 percent actually did, according to Chartwell. And 27 percent of those who opted out, initially, have since switched to a smart meter.


ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at chuck@chuck-ross.com.