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Do Smart Meters Pose Problems?

Consumers, health, and privacy advocates pose questions about digital meters

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The basic purpose of all electric meters – whether they are old-style analog meters or newer digital "smart meters" – is to measure how much electricity is being consumed within a home or building to run the lights, heating and cooling systems, appliances, and other electricity-powered devices.

Analog Meters: Time-Proven and Basic

Older style analog meters are useful for monitoring electricity use on a periodic basis and for checking the accuracy of the electric bill from month to month. Analog electric meters have multiple spinning dials, which are best read by an experienced individual with some practice. Analog meters may seem confusing to read because the hands on the five dials alternate direction of revolution: the first revolves in a clockwise direction, the second counterclockwise, the third clockwise and so on.

Analog meters have one primary purpose: to tell the consumer or meter reader how much electricity has been used since the last reading.

Digital Metering: Multifunctional and Interactive

Digital or “smart meters,” on the other hand, provide additional functions, including interactive two-way communication. The smart meter not only records electricity use, but it passes information about consumption between the home to the electricity supplier daily over a wireless digital radio frequency network.

A home energy management system with compatible, interactive devices connected to advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) can potentially offer energy management benefits. For example, smart meters may one day enable consumers to program electricity use for non-peak hours when power is available at lower cost. This interactive capability could also allow utilities to manage energy use and adjust loads during periods when there is danger of a potential system overload or failure due to higher-than-normal peak demand, such as during periods of extremely hot or cold weather.

Anticipated Benefits Versus Potential Problems

Some individuals are concerned about potential problems with the smart meters that are part of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). Health activists, consumer watchdogs, and privacy advocates have raised three main areas of concerns:

  1. Consumer watchdogs question the accuracy of smart meters, and whether billing errors are more likely.
  2. Health advocates are concerned about potential risks related to the effects of low-level radiation, which is produced by the smart grid’s wireless radio frequency network. This issue is similar to the controversy regarding cancer and the use of cellphones.
  3. Privacy advocates are worried that information gathered by smart meters and other smart grid devices will be misused.

Questioning accuracy of smart meters

Customers tend to complain about inaccurate electric meters if they receive higher-than-usual bills following the installation of the device. Though the smart meter may be faulty, other variables could be to blame. Billing cycle changes, extraordinary weather, higher consumption, faulty home appliances or heating and air conditioning. and the recent addition of dynamic energy pricing can cause the difference, according to a report by the Electric Power Research Institute.

Key cases on accuracy

The two highest-profile cases involving customer complaints of inaccurate meters were in California and Texas. When customers complained of higher bills after smart meters were installed in parts of those states, independent audits of smart meters were ordered.

The complaints coincided with a hot summer in California and a cold winter in Texas, conditions which may have contributed to perception of inaccuracies, the audits concluded.

Hot under the collar in California

San Francisco-based PG&E began installing smart meters in its service area in 2006. In 2009 the utility began receiving a flood of complaints about unusually higher electricity bills, with customers blaming the increase on faulty meters.

In October 2009 the company told customers that the higher bills were not the fault of meters, but due to the increased use of electricity to run air conditioners during the unusually hot summer that had just passed, as well as two rate increases over the previous 12 months.

Nevertheless, in May 2010, PG&E apologized to customers, primarily for poor customer service by not responding better to complaints about the skyrocketing bills. By the time PG&E issued the apology, it had installed 5.5 million smart meters in its service area. The investor-owned utility said at the time that less than 1 percent (50,000) meters had malfunctioned, causing inaccurate bills.

Results from the independent testing ordered by the California Public Utilities Commission were released in September 2010. That test found that the 750 smart meters tested were accurate and that customer billing matched expected results.

Winter of discontent in Texas

In early 2010, Texas utility company Oncor received a flood of complaints about the accuracy of its smart meters, prompting the state utilities commission to hire independent analysts to confirm their accuracy.

At the time, transmission and distribution service provider Oncor said the increase in complaints wasn’t from just the smart meter customers, which numbered about 760,000. Most of the calls were from customers with electromechanical meters, also complaining of huge increases. The company the increases were likely due to the unusually cold weather. And the previous winter was particularly mild, so customers noticed an even bigger seasonal jump than usual.

Nevertheless, the Texas Public Utility Commission responded to requests from legislators and consumers for independent verification of smart meter accuracy. In early July 2010, Oncor reported that only 25 of the 1.1 million smart meters it had installed by then were inaccurate.

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