Smart Meters and Smart Grid
The electric grid in the U.S. was largely built in the 1890s and improved upon as technology advanced through each decade. Today, it consists of more than 9,200 electric generating units with more than 1 million megawatts of generating capacity connected to more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines. The grid is in desperate need of an upgrade in order to handle the steadily increasing demands of new and complex technologies.
A significant part of the transmission upgrade involves the proposed use of smart meters and smart grid technology. Smart meters are electric meters that use radio signals to communicate information about energy demand and usage to customers and utilities. It’s a two-way communication between the utility and its customers. The sensing along the transmission lines is what makes the grid “smart.” Customers can use the timely information to adjust their habits to reduce overall electric consumption, and to utilize power during off-peak hours when it’s cheapest. This technology has the potential to have a significant impact on both electric usage, and total CO2 emissions.
Smart meter technology has raised legitimate privacy and public health concerns, however. Below is an analysis of some of the key benefits and concerns surrounding smart meter technology, and how Vermont is dealing with these issues.
Benefits of a Smart Grid
Customer Savings and Efficiency
The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) found that customers can realize an average energy savings of up 12% when they are given real time feedback about energy consumption from smart meters. This data was supported by a follow up study that found those individuals who were very responsive to feedback about energy usage were able to realize savings of up to 25%. The study found that the households with the highest savings were homes where individuals were receptive and comfortable with the monitoring technology, homes with individuals under the age of 15, lower income households, and households that were highly motivated to make behavioral changes affecting consumption. These statistics suggest that the adoption of smart meters in Vermont could help low income households save on energy use, and help energy conscious Vermonters take even bigger steps toward reducing their CO2 footprint.
Reduction of CO2 Emissions
The United States Department of Energy‘s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory released a report in 2010 that found 100% adoption of smart meter and smart grid technologies could decrease carbon emissions from electric utilities by 12%. To put this in perspective, electric utilities account for 40% of the nation’s C02 emissions, while the transportation sector only account for 20%. A 12% reduction in emissions from electric utilities would stop 442 metric tons of carbon emissions from being released into the atmosphere. This is the equivalent of permanently closing 66 average coal fired power plants. Of course, it’s worth noting that in Vermont transportation accounts for more CO2 emissions than electric utilities, in part because we have been getting much of our power from nuclear and Hydro Quebec.
More Reliable Service
The two-way communication of a smart grid can pinpoint problems immediately. When power outages occur, they can be identified and corrected quickly, keeping homes and businesses up and running more smoothly.
More Renewable Power and Electric Transportation
The implementation of smart grid and smart meter technology will be essential in supporting expanded renewable energy generation. The European Wind Energy Association found that in order to incorporate wind and solar energy at a grid scale (levels higher than 20%) advanced energy management techniques would be required at the grid operator level. With the implementation of smart grid and smart meter technology, all power sources can be dynamically managed, allowing for integration of more distributed generation such as wind and solar. This will reduce the need for “baseload” power sources, and help the state to utilize power from more local clean energy producers.
Smart grid technologies will also be essential in helping Vermont move toward widespread adoption of plug-in electric vehicles. The US Department of Energy found that existing US power plants could meet the electricity needs of 73% of the nation’s light vehicles if current vehicles were replaced by plug-ins that charged at night during off peak hours. Smart meters will be essential in the move to plug-in electric vehicles because the meters will be able to coordinate vehicle charging with those times when electric demand is the lowest, and prices are the cheapest. By facilitating the transition to clean electric vehicles, this technology will help cut a huge source of damaging air emissions.
Risks and Costs of a Smart Grid
Possible Health effects of Radio Frequency Radiation from Smart Meters
Vermont has seen some vocal opposition to smart meters because of possible health effects of the radio frequency radiation (RFR) they emit. Smart meters emit the same type of RFR signals that have been used in TV and radio broadcasting for years. RFR is also emitted from microwave ovens, wi-fi devices, and cell phones. There has been minimal research done on the health impacts of RFR from smart meters, but there has been research on the impacts of RFR from cell phones.
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) reviewed available research on cell phones and concluded that RFR is “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” They noted that “there could be some risk, and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between cell phones and cancer risk.” The WHO made this determination based on studies of heavy exposure to RFR from long term cell phone use.
Smart meters emit significantly lower levels of RFR than cell phones, but there is still concern about their possible health impacts. As with cell phones, a person’s exposure depends on signal strength and exposure. A report by the California Council of Science and Technology in 2010 found that a person ten feet from a smart meter would experience 250 to 1,250 times less exposure to RFR than would a person using a cell phone.
The Vermont Department of Health (DOH) recently reviewed available data on RFR in its analysis of smart meter safety. The DOH started its analysis by comparing the level of RFR emitted by smart meters to the level of RFR emitted by cell phones. The study found that “readings from these devices verify that they emit no more than a small fraction of the RFR emitted from a wireless phone, even at close proximity to the meter, and are well below regulatory limits set by the Federal Communications Commission.” The study found that the maximum RFR exposure from smart meters is less that one quarter of the maximum exposure recommended by the FCC. This measurement was taken in direct contact with the smart meter, and when RFR was measured at a distance of three or more feet the exposure was at mere background levels. The DOH concluded that based on the low levels of RFR, and the lack of a conclusive data on the health effects of RFR, that the current regulatory standards of RFR from smart meters was protective of public health. As noted below, the Legislature has required further study from DOH while implementation of smart meter technology moves forward.
Security and Privacy Concerns
Another concern expressed about smart meters is the fact that they will collect large amounts of data about personal habits and energy usage. and Based on these and other concerns, the legislature determined that customers may opt-out of smart meters without penalty.
This year the Legislature passed S.214 to address concerns expressed about smart meters. Under the new law, consumers have the ability to opt-out of having smart meters installed on their homes free of charge, and any Vermonter can have a previously installed smart meter removed from their house at no charge to the customer. The law also requires additional study of possible health concerns and a follow up report by DOH to be presented to legislators in January 2013. The Department of Public Service is also required to report to the legislature about savings, and reported security breaches both in 2014 and 2016.
There is little doubt that smart meter technology will make it possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and decrease overall electric consumption. Sen. Bernie Sanders is a major proponent of the technology and has helped to bring significant federal money and resources to Vermont to help make the state a leader in rolling it out. Smart meters and smart grid technology are considered by many to be critical in integrating more diverse renewable power sources into our grid, and this technology will help in the move toward plug-in electric transportation. It also offers consumers a valuable tool to help lower personal electric consumption, and thus their utility bills.
The question of whether there is any actual risk to public health from exposure to RFRs remains unresolved. But it’s possible that future studies will demonstrate some risk of health impacts from RFR exposure. Even if that is so, however, it is likely that smart meters will make up a very small part of a person’s daily exposure. Much more exposure will likely come from cell phones, wi-fi, microwaves, etc. Vermont officials are continuing to research public health issues.
In the meantime, it’s important to note that Vermont state law now allows utility customers to opt out of smart meter usage free of charge. This offers consumers an important choice in the matter. This opportunity to opt-out also addresses many of the concerns raised about privacy as well.
Vermont Department of Health, Radio Frequency Radiation and Health: Smart Meters. (2012).
Karen Ehrhardt-Martinez et al. Advanced Metering Initiatives and Residential Feedback Programs: A Meta-Review for Household Electricity-Saving Opportunities. (2010)
R.G. Pratt et al. U.S Department of Energy. The Smart Grid: An Estimation of the Energy and CO2 Benefits. January 2010
Ben Foster & SusanMazur-Stommen. Results From Recent Real-Time Feedback Studies.
Wipro Council for Industry research. Achieving Sustanablity through Smart Meter and Smart Grid.
James Moore, Vermont Public Interest Research and Education Fund, Repowering Vermont: Replacing Vermont Yankee for a Clean Energy Future. (2009).
International Agency for Research on Cancer. Radiofr IARC Classifies Frequency Electromagnetic Fields as Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans.
Fred Krupp, Environmental Defense Fund, Smart Meter Response.
Vermont Energy Investment Corporation. Smart Grid 101.
Video footage: August 20, 2012 Press Conference on the Benefits of the Smart Grid in Vermont