Smart Meters: A Smart Idea

Despite pockets of resistance in various parts throughout North America, utilities are continuing to deploy smart meters as part of a greater vision to build a smart grid. Ontario began installing smart meters en masse in 2007. BC Hydro has been installing smart meters with the goal of having all of its customers with one by the end of 2012. SaskPower has also started installing smart meters to customers in October of this year.

Smart meters have also been deployed in many jurisdictions in the United States as well. According to Greentech Media, one third of all US households have had smart meters installed. Larger states like California, Texas, and Florida will have installed smart meters in more than half of all households by 2015.

 Expected smart meter deployments by state

The rationale for this is quite simple; a smart grid is a sound investment for the future with significant added benefits such as more efficient energy use, renewable energy accommodation, and decreased chance of a massive power outage.

Since smart meters are able to timestamp a customer’s electricity consumption, it is possible to implement time-of-use pricing, which will compel people to think twice about their energy usage. Now customers will be able to shift more energy intensive activities to less expensive times like early in the morning or late at night where demand is considerably less than in the middle of the day. Or they can save money by decreasing energy usage during higher demand periods. This will ease the strain on the grid, allowing for a more consistent daily demand without major spikes in the middle of the day. It will also help customers choose wisely when it comes to energy use resulting in an overall decrease in demand.

Ontario Hydro Time of Use Rates

Ontario Hydro Time of Use Rates

The future of our grid is looking greener. A previous Energent blog post indicated that wind power is going to make up a significant portion of Ontario’s grid in the coming years. Other regions around the world continue to increase renewable energy production as well. As more renewable and intermittent energy is added to the grid, utilities will need to balance demand with generation even more carefully. But with a vast network of smart meters consistently sending utilities energy consumption data, this balancing act becomes much simpler. Armed with this data, generators can scale down energy production from more polluting sources allowing renewables to supply the grid instead, which will reduce pollution and carbon emissions.

Solar Wind Farm

Solar Wind Farm

As a result of less strain on the grid brought about by consistent communication between utilities and smart meters, power outages are less likely to occur. As the complex balancing act between generation, distribution and consumption is more simplified by a smart grid, the chances of power lines coming into contact with branches causing surges is less likely to occur. In the event of a power outage, utilities will know much quicker as the smart meters will stop sending data altogether, allowing them to respond quicker.

Toronto skyline during the 2003 blackout

Toronto skyline during the 2003 blackout

For utilities, the rationale is simple for smart meters; more information concerning the grid will improve service by preventing and responding quicker to power outages, and in the long run, help save energy through load shifting and decreased demand brought about by time-of-use pricing. The integration of renewable energy sources to the grid is an added bonus that can drastically reduce our carbon emissions. The fact that there is resistance to smart meters shouldn’t and won’t deter utilities from deploying them when the benefits are so obvious. The world is getting smarter; the grid needs to get smarter with it.

Smart Meters: Why should I care?

Picture this, an electrical grid perfectly balancing generation, demand and distribution. A grid that is capable of accommodating abundant wind, solar and other renewable sources of energy into its system without issue or complication. On the rare occasion that problems occur, they are quick to be resolved. Such a technological wonder is not only possible but is already under way and it has started with the mass deployment of smart meters, so why then is there so much opposition towards them?

Smart Meter

Smart meters like this one are being deployed across North America

For those that don’t know, a smart meter is a device that collects a building’s energy use along with the time it was used which is then sent to the utility companies via Wi-Fi network at set intervals per day. Utilities will then use this data to get a more accurate, up-to-date picture of demand and consumption, which will make the grid easier to manage.

Currently, many utility companies across North America are installing smart meters at peoples’ homes and businesses as part of a greater vision to build a smart grid. There has been, however, a significant amount of resistance to them in many areas. In British Columbia, many groups have sprung up vehemently opposing smart meters. In a more extreme example, some families in Texas have been threatening utility workers at gun point to prevent smart meter installations. Such resistance to a seemingly benign piece of hardware has raised concerns over privacy invasion and health risks. However, are these legitimate concerns? Are these groups just buying into their own paranoia? Looking into this subject, it seems like logic and science are being ignored at the expense of innovation and progress.

BC Residents Protest smart meters

British Columbia has become a hot bed of smart meter opposition

Much opposition towards smart meters is that fact that they monitor a building’s energy usage throughout the day. Some are concerned that this is an invasion of privacy and is akin to a form of surveillance. Although smart meters will give utilities a more accurate picture of how much energy you’re consuming throughout the day, utilities will not know how you’re using that energy. This is similar to how we already deal with our internet service providers (ISP). Most ISPs will know how much bandwidth you’ve used, but they won’t know whether your bandwidth was used for downloading, uploading, streaming, etc. Privacy hasn’t been violated; the ISP is merely collecting your bandwidth usage so that they can bill you for the services they provide. Utilities will work in the exact same manner (as they do now), the only real change brought about by smart meters is that utilities will now gather your energy data via Wi-Fi signals, which is the other main area of concern for smart meter opponents.

The radio frequency (RF) radiation emitted by a smart meter’s Wi-Fi component is often cited as a major health risk by smart meter opponents. However, given the common sources of RF radiation, it seems short-sighted to villainize smart meters. Any wireless device will emit RF radiation; this includes cell phones, wireless routers, radios, garage door openers, etc. According to the American Cancer Society, cell phones will emit significantly more RF radiation than a smart meter and at a closer distance as cell phones are often pressed against a person’s ear whereas a smart meter is usually located outside of a building. Furthermore, a smart meter doesn’t emit RF radiation continuously like a cell phone; it will only emit when sending data to the utility. This is all making the assumption that the amount of RF radiation emitted by cell phones even poses a health risk in the first place, which modern science has flatly refuted. Frankly, the Sun is a far more dangerous emitter of radiation (and a proven cause of cancer) than any cell phone or smart meter, but that doesn’t seem to stop smart meter opponents from stepping outside to protest.

Sun

Beware, it could actually kill you… unlike a smart meter

The proven benefits of smart meters outweigh any inconclusive (or downright false) claims surrounding them. As more and more buildings have them installed, the grid will become far more interconnected in terms of its ability to share energy data information with utilities. It will make our grid more efficient, more responsive, and could potentially save us billions of dollars in the long run. But all this could be delayed or even prevented if smart meters continue to be opposed for illogical reasons. Now is not the time to let stupidity impede progress.