How Smart is Your new Smart Meter? Is it too Smart for its own Good?

A smart meter is a higher-tech version of your current analog meter. It is said to be “smart” because of its ability to measure energy use in real time and report back to the utility company remotely. Smart meters are equipped with wireless communication technology which enhances communication with the utility over a secure system. Over the past five years, utilities in Texas have been gradually replacing analog meters with digital smart meters capable of providing detailed electricity usage information to the consumer, and automatic transmission of data to the utility for billing and other related services. In Texas, over five million smart meters have already been installed and by 2013, these new advanced meters will be available to all consumers.

Consumers enjoy many benefits of the smart meter. First, smart meters provide improved reliability because of their ability to send out instant power outage and/or service notices to the utility so repairs can begin quickly and therefore, cause less disruption to a consumer’s daily activities. Secondly, smart meters allow customers to make informed decisions by providing highly detailed information about their electricity usage. Customers with smart meters can access their electricity usage through their utility’s website and in the near future by installing a display device that wirelessly monitors and communicates their electricity usage and costs in real-time. Customers can also monitor their usage through the internet with portable devices such as a smart phone when they are on the go. These advances allow consumers to make informed decisions on how to optimize their electricity consumption and reduce their bills. The third big benefit of smart meters is “dynamic pricing”. Smart meters allow real-time pricing to be allocated to real-time usage for electricity according to the demand. With dynamic pricing, consumers understand when to conserve, the grid operators know more accurate load information, and outages are much less likely because supply and demand are more in balance. Lastly, while customers lower their electricity demand using near real-time information provided by smart meters, it helps the environment by reducing the need to build more power plants and avoid the use of older, less efficient plants that have higher greenhouse gas and other air emissions.

Every technology has its advantages and drawbacks and smart meters are no exception. Along with their benefits, smart meters’ new technology incites certain concerns in the minds of customers. Smart meters have been the subject of some controversy in both California and Pennsylvania.  Below we will address the main concerns.

The first concern occurs as a result to some customers seeing occasionally higher electricity bills after the smart meter is installed. Consumers jump to the conclusion that they are paying too much for the TDSP charges hat the new smart meter collects data for. They were used to seeing bills with reported usage from analog meters. However, over time, analog meters slow down and become less accurate. Customers blame the smart meter for higher bills, but they are in reality being billed for precisely what they use.

The second concern involves privacy. When a smart meter is installed, the utility has access to the electricity usage from every 15 minutes of the customer’s day and the data is considered a security threat by some for consumers. They fear the usage information can depict their consumer and social habits, potentially compromising their privacy if the data was shared with marketers or even worse, malicious parties who would seek to harm or steal from consumers. The usage data is so detailed that it may be possible to determine certain habits and types of equipment that are on premises by studying indicative fluctuations in usage. Coincidentally the lack of usage for certain intervals could help determine when a consumer has vacated the facility or has only a few inhabitants present. This could create an opportunity for thieves to come in and steal property. The Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) has taken measures to ensure that the account and usage information will remain secure and confidential. All utilities are required to comply with federal laws related to privacy and disclosure of personal information. Additionally, smart meters have certain security features that prevent and protect customers against unauthorized access. On a side note, today’s social network sites compromise your security much more than your simple 15-minute interval usage information!

The third concern surrounding the customer is a claim that smart meters emit dangerous levels of electromagnetic radiation, which can be very dangerous. According to the AEP Utility in Texas, “Smart Meters use the same FCC-approved radio frequencies that have been used for many years in devices such as baby monitors, portable phones, remote controlled toys and medical monitors.” Furthermore, smart meters emit very low radio frequency fields. Studies show that their exposure to humans would be very minimal, and that there are no known negative biological effects. While many people claim to be sensitive to radio frequencies, and report headaches and even cancer from the exposure, there is not enough scientific evidence to prove this hypothesis. A World Health Organization (WHO) review states, “Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the World Health organization concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields. However, some gaps in knowledge about biological effects exist and need further research.”

In summary, smart meters provide new technology that can help consumers make informed decisions, reduce their electricity bills and lessen their impact on the environment. In the near future, smart meters promise to take us into a new era of energy management and customer service.


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