With the vulnerability of the US electric grid making headlines after Superstorm Sandy, it is obvious to just about every American that our electric grid is in serious need of an upgrade. A recent study released yesterday by the National Institute for Science, Law & Public Policy, “Getting Smarter About the Smart Grid,” questions whether smart meter technology is adequate, safe, or even economically feasible. The author of the study, Dr. Timothy Schoechle, goes as far as to call the present deployment strategies of smart meters “irresponsible.” Dr. Schoechle’s claim that smart meters are not smart enough is certainly viable. But, is the negative publicity surrounding smart meters is completely warranted, or is it an example of the public’s tendency to reject new technologies? Fear of new technology is far from a new phenomenon. Ever since Plato expressed his fear that the pencil would ruin our ability to retain memories in his Phaedrus, people have been hesitant to accept new technology as part of daily life.
The most common fears surrounding smart meters are health and privacy related. For instance, smart meters are designed to record and transmit data on average every 1-15 minutes. Many consumers fear that this will result in an invasion of privacy that can allow data on household activities to be monitored and/or recorded. A 2009 paper by Elias Quinn, a smart meter skeptic, demonstrated just how detailed the data collected by 1 minute interval smart meters is. Quinn created a profile based on meter data that isolated when specific appliances were in use including toasters, microwaves, televisions, and water heaters.
Whether or not privacy concerns are warranted, there is no doubt that the possibility does exist for data mapping of individuals’ household activities, especially if interval data allows you to see exactly when the coffee pot is in use or how long a family watches TV. Data like this could easily become extremely valuable in this age of “big data.”
The health concerns related to smart meters are primarily tied to the amount of electromagnetic radiation emitted by the meters. Smart meters have been blamed for everything from headaches to cancer. The radiation emitted by smart meters is similar to radiation emitted by most cell phones, which, according to the World Health Organization, does not pose a risk to human health. Subsequent studies by other organizations have claimed there are cancer and other health risks associated with the radiation, but these claims have not been proven.
The benefits of smart meter data, however, could far outweigh potential risks and uncertainties involved. Just recently, Superstorm Sandy demonstrated how smart grid technology can be a crucial element in identifying power outages and hastening repairs. A meter system that records data and transmits it directly to the utility also eliminates the hassle of estimated billing, which can result in overcharges. Accurate usage data will be available to both the utility and consumer, so there will be fewer pricing disputes. Benefits regarding increased energy efficiency, peak load shaving, and demand response related to smart meters still remain to be verified fully, but, if Sandy is any indicator of future weather patterns and the vulnerability of our electric grid, then implementing smart meters may very well be an important step towards building a truly smart grid.