May 22 2017

The Smart Meter Hubbub

smart-meter-exampleSame story, different day.

While the details of specific topics change, people are the same. They commit the same fallacies and errors in thinking, and so the patterns of arguments tend to be the same.

Many power companies are replacing the old analogue meters with digital smart meters – devices that measure how much electricity you use and therefore need to be billed for. The newer meters are able to gather more information about electricity usage, not just overall usage. They can measure when you are using electricity throughout the day, for example. They can also communicate this information to the power company wirelessly, eliminating the need to have someone come to your home to read the meter.

There is an obvious efficiency to this increased data and communication. Further, one of the most challenging aspects of power production is balancing production and demand. Demand also tends to peak at certain times, which means that power companies need to have a lot of extra capacity that kicks in just for peak usage. Peak power production tends to be the least efficient and most expensive.

One hope is that smart meters will allow for peak shaving – giving customers information they can use to shift their energy usage off peak.

So what’s the controversy? The same litany of mostly made up complaints and conspiracy theories that seem to crop up for any new technology. Just about every complaint about smart meters has an analogy with vaccines and GMOs, for example, and generally the same crowd are complaining. 

Health Effects

As with vaccines and GMOs, smart meter opponents fearmonger about the health effects of the wireless radio signals that smart meters use to communicate to the power company. There is no evidence that smart meters pose any health risk, so instead they try to extrapolate from research on other devices that emit radio waves.

As I have discussed before, while there is some dissent in the research, the majority of studies show no risk from frequent exposure to non-ionizing radiation. Even daily cell phone use has not been clearly shown to have any risk. At best opponents can extrapolate from biological changes associated with non-ionizing radiation exposure, but there is no reason to think these changes pose any risk. Their best argument is that, “Stuff happens, therefore risk.”

So next they play the precautionary principle charge. Essentially they keep moving the goalpost to greater and greater evidence for an absence of health risk, to the extreme of demanding proof of zero risk. There is no such thing in science, of course, all we can say that any potential risk is too low to detect.

They then appeal to bogus claims, such as the notion that some people are extremely sensitive to electromagnetic frequencies (EMF). Science is not on their side here either. Studies generally show that people who claims to be EMF sensitive cannot even tell when they are being exposed (as long as they are blinded).

They then appeal to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that classified EMF as a 2b carcinogen. This is the same group that classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen. This agency is notorious, however, for having a very low threshold for classifying anything as a possible or probable carcinogen. Citing them is cherry picking one end of the spectrum. I understand the IARC wants to capture all possible carcinogens and emphasizes the precautionary principle, but at this point they are doing a disservice by confusing the public about actual risks. They should come more in line with other health and scientific agencies.

Further, plausibility makes the argument of a health risk ridiculous. In a recent video making the rounds, Kirk Rutter shows a smart meter as constantly putting out angry looking electrical activity. The video is an excellent example of one-sided propaganda. In a 2013 article Bailey and Borwein put smart meter activity into perspective:

It is also instructive to compare the radiation levels of smart meters with those of other wireless devices. Smart meters only transmit data for roughly 1.4 seconds per day, at very low wattage. And even if one stands less than one meter (3 feet) from a smart meter when it broadcasts its data, the resulting microwave exposure is 550 times less than standing in front of an active microwave oven, and 1100 times less than holding an active cell phone to one’s ear.

And you probably won’t be just three feet from the smart meter during this 1.4 seconds as they are usually placed outside the house. The contribution of a smart meter to your overall exposure to EMF, therefore, is negligible. One brief conversation on a smart phone will give you more exposure than decades of having a smart meter on your home.

Incidental Risks

Anti-smart meter activists make a lot over the fact that there have been reports of spontaneous fires of smart meters. They present this as an inherent risk of smart meter technology. This, however, would be the equivalent of opposing smart phones because of the recent problems with the Galaxy smart phone catching fire. One particular model of smart meter, that can be remotely turned on and off, was prone to a failure that could cause fires. These meters were recalled and replaced.

The overall failure rate of smart meters, given the millions that are installed, is pretty low. Failures and recalls are common with many technologies (cars, for example) and is not a reason to oppose the technology, just to properly regulate it.

But if you are anti-smart meter you are likely to marshal every argument you can against them, whether they are reasonable or not.

Big Brother

Perhaps the real reason that many people are against smart meters is that they represent a further intrusion by the government and corporations into our private lives. Privacy is a legitimate issue in general, but I don’t think the smart meter opponents make a compelling case. It is mainly built on innuendo and the slippery slope fallacy.

Just watch the video I linked to above. They go from – the electric company will at first suggest that you change the timing of your activity to off peak (such as when you eat dinner), but soon they will be requiring it. Really? That’s a big leap, from providing information to customers to controlling when they eat dinner. This is not a natural evolution, as the latter requires a society very different from the one we live in.

They also imply that power companies will be rationing electricity. Well, they do that now (they are called brown outs), when demand exceeds capacity. They don’t want to do this, because they make money when they sell you electricity. In fact, the whole idea of peak shaving is to avoid rationing by preventing demand from exceeding capacity. Smart meters, if anything, will make it less likely that the power company will have to ration power.

There is also a heavy implication that smart meters will be used to spy on you.  This is where things get a little complicated, because there is the potential to gather a lot of specific information about your energy usage through a smart meter. Right now the only information power companies are using is how much energy you are using throughout the day.

This ordinary use of smart meters is often conflated by opponents with two distinct and legitimate concerns. The first deals with smart meters as part of the “internet of things.” When all of your appliances are also smart, including cameras for monitoring your home, then the potential to use such devices to spy on you is much greater. This is part of a much bigger concern about privacy in an age of ubiquitous digital technology.

Smart meters themselves are a minor part of this, when you consider the amount of personal information available through your e-mail, web browsing, and smart phone usage. We definitely need to have careful laws to protect our privacy, and limit what the government can do, in light of all this technology. This is not a reason to oppose smart meters specifically, however. Using e-mail and complaining about smart meters makes no sense. Rather, we need to lobby for protection of our privacy overall.

The other legitimate concern is hacking. A hacker could theoretically get data on energy usage from a power company’s network and use that to find out who is not at home, for example.

There are also benign uses of this information, such as epidemiological research. There already are systems in place to protect privacy when doing such research, by anonymizing any information, for example.


Smart meters have a host of benefits and the technology is rapidly being deployed. There are no legitimate health concerns, and the plausibility of such concerns is essentially zero. The technology is basically safe, but of course when you deploy millions of anything into the real world there will be the occasional failure. Existing systems are adequate to deal with them.

The privacy issues are real, but exaggerated and misplaced by smart meter opponents. Opposing smart meters will not solve these issues, as they are not specific to or limited to smart meters. Rather, we need to make sure there are proper regulations protecting our privacy from the abuse of any technology that can potentially be used to gather information about us.

Further, we need to make sure that smart meter systems are secured from hackers. Again, this is a ubiquitous problem with digital technology, and is a real and increasing problem. It is not specific to smart meters, however. But yes we need to require power companies to take reasonable steps to secure the meters and the information from them.

As is often the case, opponents of new technologies raise many bogus objections, use sloppy logic, invoke conspiracy theories, and generally give a bad name to the entire endeavor of being an effective watchdog on new technology, the government, and corporations. They actually hurt the cause they champion.

They can get in the way of addressing the real issues, which are often more complex and nuanced. They focus attention on the wrong thing (like smart meters or GMO technology) rather than on the actual important issues.

27 responses so far

27 thoughts on “The Smart Meter Hubbub”

  1. Michael Finfer, MD says:

    Delmarva Power sends out emails and text messages when they are expecting a peak use day, and they reward you with a credit on your bill if you keep your usage below a certain amount, determined by your previous usage.

    I consider this to be a good thing, a nudge to be a good citizen. I suspect that some would disagree with that.

  2. edwardBe says:

    I think it is much more realistic to be concerned that the power company itself could be hacked by ransomware like wannacry or something similar. No money, no power. Imagine the scenario during an especially hot day for those of us in Southern California or the Midwest or just before an ice storm is due to arrive for you folks in the North East or during cleanup following a nasty hurricane.

    Even hospitals have already been targeted by the conscienceless folks behind wannacry. Usually they target data, but I’m sure they have no qualms about disrupting the operations side of things like air traffic control computers, emergency services and other things vital to the day to day function of our tech-dependent society.

    Bruce Schneier of Schneier on Security is a great source of accurate information about what is going on in the world of internet/computer security and the lack of it.

  3. “They go from – the electric company will at first suggest that you change the timing of your activity to off peak (such as when you eat dinner), but soon they will be requiring it. Really? That’s a big leap, from providing information to customers to controlling when they eat dinner. This is not a natural evolution, as the latter requires a society very different from the one we live in.”

    They surely won’t be able to require you to change the timing of power consuming activities, but smart meters do make it possible to institute variable power rates which could be used as a incentive/ punitive system to influence timing of consumption.

    It would be possible to set different rates for different times of the day as well as create marginal rates (consumption above certain levels at certain times gets charged at a higher rate).

    Whether this would be a a good or fair idea is a matter of debate, but in most markets, it would require regulatory approval, so that debate would likely happen.

  4. Fair Persuasion says:

    I am pleased with my smart meter nearby the bird house. None of the baby birds mistake the new meter for a cleared flight route like the old meter. Smack!

  5. locutusbrg says:

    I have no problem with having them as far as safety. As a consumer I easily for see the forthcoming penalty of having an electric distributor know your usage patterns and pricing you accordingly. A penalty for what they consider to be wasteful. A sin tax easily justified and likely welcomed socially. Still another social nanny fear that I think is reasonable. No grand conspiracy just a common political theme that I can easily see happening.

  6. jester700 says:

    Pricing structures like this aren’t a sin tax like those on alcohol, tobacco, etc. With different rates based on market need and supply/demand, you could look at the lower rates as a discount for using power in ways that benefit the larger community.

  7. BBBlue says:

    Anyone using a home energy monitor? I think utilities should offer a device with smartphone app that integrates with smart meters to provide information like instantaneous demand and demand history with the option to display values in dollars and cents, not just watts. Perhaps include some sort of visual for grid status. Smart meter tech is being underutilized.

  8. chikoppi says:

    It’s a good intermediary step that can lead to better infrastructure decisions.

    The average household consumption is around 30kwh/day. If every household could have just a 10kw battery the peak usage could be offset, the grid load could be leveled out, and you’d have backup in case of an outage.

    The Tesla Powewall is 14kw and currently runs about $7k for hardware/installation, so we’re not quite there yet. If that price could be halved it might make sense from an infrastructure investment perspective to provide incentives and encourage wide-spread adoption.

  9. Pete A says:

    Residing within the UK, I performed a web search in order to learn some facts about our smart meters.

    Instead of boring the readers with several of the things which I learnt, I shall refer only to the Parliamentary business publication Evidence Check: Smart metering of electricity and gas, 16 September 2016:

    What I find mind-bogglingly absurd is that by far the most important unresolved technical issues and proposals regarding these meters is being discussed so long after the initial rollout of smart meters within the UK. WTF?

  10. bachfiend says:


    ‘The average household consumption is around 30 kw.h/day’. Mine’s around 3 (admittedly for one person, so it’s easier for me to reduce the consumption). I live in Perth, which has a temperate climate (hardly ever above 42 degrees Celsius in summer or below 3 degrees in winter (I refuse to use Fahrenheit).

    In summer I use a fan for cooling and in winter I add clothes for warming.

    In Australia, the main argument, the only argument I can tell, against smart meters, is the privacy one. Someone nefarious somehow might be able to determine if your house is unoccupied at any time. In my case, I don’t know how. The only way they’d be able to tell if the lights are on, and since I use mostly LEDs, and usually with just one on at any time, it would be difficult to distinguish its 10 Watt consumption against the fridge’s intermittent 250 Watts. The highest power consumption is the kettle, which goes over 1000 Watts for several minutes, but since the smart meter looks at 15 minute periods probably would be hidden too.

    The electricity companies are keen on smart meters partly because it allows a means of relatively painless load shedding. In heat waves, a lot of people arrive home from work at the same time and all immediately turn on their air conditioners (Australia has for some reason a very high uptake of ACs) causing a large spike in consumption the electricity providers are unable to cope with, which sometimes results in widespread brownouts, which isn’t nice if it’s hot – if you’re affected you don’t even have a fan.

    The relatively high uptake of solar panels doesn’t help as much in heat waves too – when it’s above 40 degrees, the power output of the panels drops by as much as 20%.

    The idea is that the electricity companies could have the ability to turn off people’s high power items (such as ACs) for short periods during periods of high consumption – people would have their ACs but they’d run intermittently during periods of high demand. And the electricity companies might pay people who agree to allow this to happen to them (they wouldn’t be interested in paying me though – I use so little).

  11. chikoppi says:

    [bachfiend] The idea is that the electricity companies could have the ability to turn off people’s high power items (such as ACs) for short periods during periods of high consumption – people would have their ACs but they’d run intermittently during periods of high demand. And the electricity companies might pay people who agree to allow this to happen to them (they wouldn’t be interested in paying me though – I use so little).

    If your average consumption is only 3kw/day even a small battery (4kw) would be sufficient to offset the peak load. The power company could send a “peak load” signal when a threshold is reached that charges a premium for power consumed from the grid during that time. You could set your battery to trigger when the peak load signal is received (recharging only during optimal off-peak hours). No need to stop running the AC when it is most needed.

    “In summer I use a fan for cooling and in winter I add clothes for warming.”

    With the exception of a futuristic and fully-powered EV suit, there is no amount of clothing that would protect me from our winter climate!

  12. bachfiend says:


    The local electricity provider publishes useful statistics regarding power consumption. The average household consumption for my suburb is around 16, and for households of my type around 8, so I’m well below the average.

    I’ve looked at getting a battery backup, and I think I’d need one that supplies around 12 (or 4 days consumption, perhaps add a few panels and go off the grid completely – I only have 8 panels, which covers consumption for 10 months of the year, with a small shortfall for just 2 months, in the middle of winter). I decided it wasn’t a good idea.

    Your point about having a backup for outages is a good one – they do occasionally happen in Perth, but usually due to extreme weather events such as storms rather than excessive consumption. I might have to reconsider.

    I wonder if and when Michael Egnor will appear? Smart meters in Australia are often mentioned in connection with global warming, one of Egnor’s bête noires.

  13. kherbert says:

    I love my smart meter. Using a combination of smart meter, NEST, new screens/curtains to reduce sun heating the house, LED bulbs, and upping my insulation, I have cut my bills in half. I am concerned about random ware and the hacking of things like my NEST. So I try to used thing in my house that at least have 2 factor authentication. I also want strick laws that pentalize companies that are sloppy and get hacked

  14. Sylak says:

    I do know couples of people who where border line anti smart meters, and some, completely against ( the anti meters were also in the anti Fluoridation camp and other great pseudo science, what a coincidence). In our home we had our first smart meter in 2007 or 2008. Back then Hydro Québec was testing price variations with hours, they needed a smart meter to do that. It was a test run, so I hop in the test project because I like the idea at first and like the idea of my old meter replaced. By the way the technician from HQ that took my old meter to put the smart one Said it was freaking old, a antique! Our house was build in the mid 60s, so the meter was probably original. The test run were a failure because it’s hard to displace some activities.for us it work but the data showed that most people could change or displace electricity consumption. We don’t have kids, and I was working nights/evenings/days shift back in those days so, for us it was easier to use timers on dishwasher, washing machine etc. But to cook mostly on the weekends was hard. People with family and job, you can’t do laundry past 22:00. Your exhausted and there is tons of it. People in appartement with bad sound proofing. When you think about it yeah, it’s hard, it’s not just habit, they more useful during some hours that why we have peak after all. Anyway Hydro Québec ditched the “peak hours” price idea. But they kept the smart meters. They did use a different model than the onewe already had so they replaced it again. This on don’t need someone to come close with a reader device. It send data to a hub somewhere on street pole.

    Like a lot of anti tech groups, anti meter really don’t understand how physic ( or any science/reality related to it) works. The old electromechanical devices used to create strong magnetic fields, one proportional to the current and the other to the voltage. Those were moving the mechanical meter part. The old meters were generating more electromagnetic field than the smart meters. Just ironic.

  15. Ryan Martin says:

    Another potential area for concern is “big data.” This isn’t something that I’m extremely concerned with, but it does raise privacy questions. As Steve pointed out, this gives them a much fuller view of how people consume electricity. Would they be allowed to sell this data to third parties? It can be used to further target audiences about new products and services. For example, they will be able to infer when people are using their devices and send out promotional material accordingly. And there are host of other things that could be done with the data.

  16. Creeping Malaise says:

    Clandestine marijuana growers aren’t keen on smart meters. Because indoor growing requires a large amount of electricity at precisely set times (high wattage lights running for 16 hours a day for vegetative growth, 12 hours a day for flowering), smart meters are going to make illegal growers much easier to detect.

  17. tmac57 says:

    Well, a friend of mine found out the hard way about a capability of smart meters to harm people financially.
    He got tired of his gas company gouging him for his monthly gas bill (you could literally use 50 cents worth of gas for a water heater in a month, and get a $40 overall bill!), so he got a smallish electric water heater, and disconnected from the gas company. So far so good. But after several months of lower utility bills, he got a whopping double sized electric bill, which he was sure was an error, as his usage had not really changed.
    Turns out, that because he lives out of commercial property (his shop), coupled with the ability of the smart meter to record peak usage during 15 minute segments, during one of those segments, his water heater was on overlapping his clothes dryer, to raise his peak power to 10 kw for at least 15 minutes, and according to the terms of service (a clause he was unaware of) triggered a doubling of the delivery costs per kw. Not just for that time mind you, but for the entire month, and for the entire next year! He was locked in at that rate, and if he again exceeded the 10kw ceiling, the clock would start again for another year going forward.
    Before smart meters, this would not have been possible, since his overall usage was exactly the same, and they would not have known the peak, and for how long. He finally reached the end of that year, while having to carefully choreograph his water heater usage (shutting it off) while using the dryer, all the while fretting that he or his partner would forget and have to wait another year before the bill would go back to normal.
    Interestingly, this clause only applies to businesses, and not residential property. I went home and checked my meter, and my neighbors, and we were both over 12 kw for the 15 minute peak. I can find now rationale for this.

  18. Pete A says:

    “[tmac57] Interestingly, this clause only applies to businesses, and not residential property.”

    Within the UK, I cannot recall a time when peak-load-based surcharges were not applied to commercial/industrial premises.

    I clearly remember a period during which electric kettles were banned in our workplace because their use, during the morning and the afternoon tea breaks, had pushed the existing peak-load-based tariff into a higher-rate tariff. The company installed centralized electric hot water urns to resolve the problem.

  19. bachfiend says:


    Interesting. I used to be connected to natural gas, but then I realised that the service charge was invariably many times larger than the cost of the actual amount of gas used, so I had the gas supply disconnected and replaced the gas hot water system (my only usage of gas) with a solar hot water system.

    So far, so good. Then the gas supplier, perhaps in order to boost profits before being put out for a trade sale as part of a reprivatisation, wrote to me that since I still had the meter from when I was a customer many years earlier, insisted I was still liable for maintainance of the meter and all the infrastructure leading to the meter, including the 2,000 pipe from the North-west of a Western Australia, and insisted that I open another account with them (generously they told me they’d waive the $45 initial account opening fee) and they’d charge me around $90 a year for the maintainance. Or I could have them remove the meter for $250.

    This was several years ago. I told them to taking a flying leap, I don’t have any contract with them (they’d sent the demand letter to ‘occupier’) and since then I haven’t heard from them again.

    I wonder how any household could use 12 kw power in any 15 minute period. That sounds like a lot. It would be the equivalent of running 12 electric kettles or 16 microwave ovens or 6 air conditioners or whatever combination necessary.

    I bought a number of power meters to check the power consumption of the various electrical items I use. It’s surprising how much (or how little) various items use.

  20. tmac57 says:

    bachfiend- I’m not sure what all contributed to that 12kw reading, but my clothes dryer is 6kw by itself on high setting, and I have a 5 ton central air unit that probably draws a great deal in the hot Texas summers, and if you throw in the electric oven or range, and 500w big screen TV…it can all add up. I do have a much more efficient TV now since early this year. The old one was an early 2005 Panasonic plasma. And I run my dryer on low now too.
    It does bother me that the Transmission Distribution Utility can impose such a draconian tariff for what was probably a 15 minute occurrence over 10kw. That’s not really very high for a business. And maybe for one month would be reasonable, but for 12 months? That’s ridiculous and out of proportion to the situation.
    My electric bill is usually not all that bad despite the high peak. Lately it’s been around $30 a month.

  21. tmac57 says:

    I just checked my oven, and it is rated at 3.5kw, so if that and the dryer were on at the same time, then were already at 9.5kw. Add in the AC, and you’re there!
    My latest 15min reading was 7.65kw which is probably more typical.

  22. Pete A says:

    bachfiend and tmac57,

    Please do not think that I’m being rude or being an Internet troll…

    What do you mean by “I wonder how any household could use 12 kw power in any 15 minute period. That sounds like a lot.”?

    Air con: ?? kW.
    Dishwasher motor+heater: ~2 kW.
    Electric cooker with oven plus four hot plates: at least 10 kW peak load.
    Electric kettle: 2-3 kW.
    High-power surround-sound AV entertainment systems: ~1 kW peak load.
    Immersion heater for hot water: ~3 kW.
    Microwave oven power input: ~1 kW.
    Tumble dryer: ~2 kW.
    Washing machine motor+heater: 2-3 kW.

    It is extremely easy to exceed 12 kW during a 15-minute period, which is entirely different from exceeding 12 kW averaged over a 15-minute period! Even the latter is easy to exceed, at least once, after agreeing to the small print in the contract between you and your supplier of electricity — especially in the contracts for business/commercial/industrial customers.

  23. bachfiend says:

    I’d noted ‘I wonder how any household could use 12 kw…’ and then provided the answer ‘it’s surprising how much (or how little) various items use’. It’s important to know how much they do actually use.

    Why would it be necessary to use a clothes dryer in Texas? Putting the wet clothes on a clothes line costs nothing.

  24. tmac57 says:

    bachfiend- “Why would it be necessary to use a clothes dryer in Texas? Putting the wet clothes on a clothes line costs nothing.”

    I can’t really argue with that logic, from a conservation point of view. 🙂 But…

    I guess my answer, (and apparently virtually everybody in my city) is that it’s out of convenience. It only takes me 30 to 45 seconds to transfer my laundry from the washer to the dryer, then hit start. To dry them on a line would involve placing them in a basket, carting them about 50 yards outside (if it is suitable weather), then spend about to ten minutes or more clipping them to the line, (hoping the birds don’t poop on them), waiting for them to dry, and then unclipping them and hanging them on to hangers or folding them in the yard (to avoid wrinkles unless I want to iron them which is even more work). Then cart them back inside to put them away.
    I save many steps and time doing them in a dryer for a very small amount of money, and I use 100% wind power on my electric plan, so the environmental savings would not be that great using a clothes line.
    If electricity where I lived was dear, or provided by fossil fuels, I would probably reconsider…also, the sun fades colored fabrics pretty quickly too.

  25. bachfiend says:


    I’d imagined that was the answer. Hanging the clothes on the line isn’t wasted – it’s a bit of exercise you wouldn’t otherwise be doing. Sunlight might fade the colour of clothes but what effect does tumbling them mechanically in hot air have on them? Your using wind generated electricity means it’s not available for anyone else to use.

    I must admit that I’m incredibly lazy. I haven’t ironed for 7 years. My idea is to take clothes from the basket, give them one or two good shakes and then put them on. If they weren’t creased when I put them on, if I’d bothered to iron them in the first place, they’d be creased after I’d worn them for a while.

  26. tmac57 says:

    Bachfiend- I actually WANT wind power to be in high demand so as to drive the market to expand in Texas, which it seems to be doing, but not quite as fast as I would like. You have to understand that Texas is quite backward in it’s attitude toward alternative energy and AGW. I want them to see that we are using as much as they can provide. I want the market robust and growing. That’s the only they understand. Let the fossil fuel users conserve. That’s what we want, less Co2.
    We need a price on carbon to really kick this into high gear.

  27. bachfiend says:


    I see your point. Australia used to have a Prime Minister who thought that wind power was ugly (I personally think the wind towers are beautiful – I once went to Albany to look at some in a beauty spot and thought they added to the scenery – and I found the noise hardly noticeable; the noise of the bus running several hundred metres away – to keep the air conditioner on – was louder).

    I could change my account to have whatever power I use off the grid come from Green Power (renewables) but I hardly use any electricity so there’s little point. I use most of my electricity during the daylight hours when my solar panels are generating most of the power I use.

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