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Green Building News

The Smart Meter’s Contentious Opponents

They still remain very much in the minority, but anti-smart-meter protesters are prompting investigations and continue to voice concerns about security and safety

Customer worries. Though smart meters are seen by the Department of Energy as essential to the efficient operation of the grid, some groups and individuals say the devices – which operate on wireless networks – are inaccurate and, because of their real-time wireless connectivity, unnecessarily intrusive and vulnerable to security lapses. This graphic is used on the website run by a group called Stop Smart Meters!
Image Credit: Stop Smart Meters!

One of the more spirited consumer movements in the energy-management realm has been the stop-smart-meters trend. In fact, there is a nonprofit group called Stop Smart Meters!

Based in California, Stop Smart Meters! is one of more than 50 groups and individuals nationwide advocating against utility-installed, wirelessly connected “smart meters.” These citizens have been tirelessly calling into question the accuracy and safety of the devices, and have voiced concerns about their vulnerability to security breaches.

Use of the meters, which are designed to allow utilities to monitor energy usage, manage power allocations, and pinpoint outages in real time, has been promoted by the U.S. Department of Energy as one of the key features of the smart grid. As GBA noted in February of last year, however, some utility customers say their rates have increased dramatically since smart meters were installed in their homes.

Others cite privacy concerns. “Do you value civil liberties and the right to privacy?” asks Stop Smart Meters! on one of its web pages. “When a ‘smart’ meter is installed, your utility has access to a treasure trove of information about you – when you wake up in the morning, when you go on vacation, what kinds of appliances you are using, etc. They will be able to sell this information to a series of corporations and the government.”

Health risks?

Other smart-meter resisters worry that the meters’ wireless transmissions can be hazardous to people with electromagnetic sensitivity and/or hacked to reveal details about utility customers’ habits and whereabouts.

A recent story posted by SurreyLeader.com, which serves British Columbia, noted that several thousand customers of the approximately 1.8 million served regional utility BC Hydro are resisting smart meter installation, and about 1,000 have called with concerns about exposure to wireless radiation.

The story points out, however, that the smart meters used by BC Hydro send out their data in brief pulses a few times a day, with daily transmission exposure totaling just under a minute at power levels several times lower than that of a cell phone. Nonetheless, whatever the specific concerns of the resisters, BC Hydro has, for the time being, decided to deploy smart meters in areas where customers don’t object.

Regulators proceed cautiously

Even if the number of smart-meter objections is relatively small, customer resistance can seriously slow or delay meter rollouts. The Michigan Public Service Commission, for example, announced on January 12 that it is launching an investigation into the deployment of smart meters by regulated utilities, according to the Detroit Free Press.

And on January 9 opponents of smart meters in central Maine appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in Portland to overturn a Public Utility Commission’s decision not to investigate claims that the wireless meters pose health, safety and privacy risks, and are an invasion of privacy, according to a story posted by The Forecaster. The regional utility, Central Maine Power, is scheduled to complete the installation of 620,000 meters throughout the state in the first quarter of this year, the story noted.

A hacker risk?

In the long run, smart-meter security vulnerabilities may end up giving meter opponents a bit more traction than health concerns, a recent MSNBC.com story suggested. The article focuses on the research results of Dario Carluccio and Stephan Brinkhaus, who signed up as customers of a German-based smart-meter firm, Discovergy, and were then able to tap into Discovergy meters’ unencrypted transmission data, which allowed them to tell whether homeowners were “home, away or even sleeping, but also what movie they were watching on TV.”

The two men presented their findings on December 30 at the Chaos Computing Congress in Berlin, where Discovergy’s CEO, Nikolaus Starzacher, came on stage and vowed to resolve the security glitches “as quickly as possible.”

18 Comments

  1. David Meiland | | #1

    Accuracy
    I'd like to hear more about the issue of higher bills with the new meters. How prevalent is this, and what is the cause? So far I have read about old mechanical meters running slower as they age, but nothing else. I have had occasion to "clock" one smart meter in a very crude setting and it seemed reasonably accurate, in spite of the customer's feeling that the bill was too high.

  2. Eric Sandeen | | #2

    Hacking, yes. Privacy - maybe, but ...
    As for hacking - I almost guarantee they can be hacked. Just look at DVD & Blu-Ray, where the creators of the "security" protocol had a VERY strong interest in doing it right. They didn't do it right. And utilities probably care a lot less. But I'm not sure how much risk is there - it depends on how much data and/or control is available.

    As for privacy and RF worries, I point to wireless routers & DSL/Cable modems.

    People happily type away all their arguments against these meters on their wireless laptops & send it out via their cable modem (ok, some probably live in faraday cages, but not most).

    If RF is a genuine worry then I'd argue that there are ulterior motives unless the concerned parties have no wifi, cell phones, wireless phones, etc in their residence. Those are devices you press against your skull, for pete's sake, not something sitting on the outside of your house.

    And as for privacy, I would argue that your cable modem (and internet use) offers at LEAST as much information about your private life, should anyone gain access to it. So while might be some privacy implications with these meters, it is interesting to see how vehemently people will rail against privacy concerns for electrical use data, but seem to have less concern about internet use, for example. So I wonder what the real concerns are?

  3. Nathan Spriegel | | #3

    Funny quote
    I enjoyed the quote "Nikolaus Starzacher, came on stage and vowed to resolve the security glitches "as quickly as possible."". That was not a glitch. If the data was being sent unencrypted it was not because someone forgot to flip a switch. They decided to save a little money by not providing the additional electronics/etc. required to have a secure system.

    As for the health concerns, the EMF from the data transmission will be minimal, especially compared to the many other sources the average user will be exposed to in their day-to-day lives. As you drive to work or home today look at all the wireless antennas you will be passing. Wi-fi hotspots, traffic controls, cell phone towers, CB's and other radios, etc. There are four fast-food places within walking distance and they ALL have Wi-Fi. In the office where I work my phone can detect SIX Wi-Fi networks (four internal and two external).

    I wonder if the increased electric bills came from the time-of-day usage rates these smart meters are capable of supporting (which I believe to be the real reason the power companies want them).

  4. Eric Sandeen | | #4

    It does tick me off, though ...
    that most of these meters don't seem to have any easy data access for the homeowner.

    If they gave something to the homeowner in return, they might have a few more converts.

  5. Mark Bartosik | | #5

    Missing features
    1) Smart meters should enable utilities to balance voltage not just report brown outs. This is important for distributed power generation e.g. local solar and wind., if the utility voltage is too high grid tied inverters are required to disconnect. But utilities are currently unable to manage voltage at the street level in real time.

    2) Smart meter should provide all the information back to the end user -- home owner. Potentially via a utility web portal.

  6. D C | | #6

    No Way Jose
    This quote: ". . . which allowed them to tell whether homeowners were “home, away or even sleeping, but also what movie they were watching on TV." is such bunk.

    There is absolutely no way a smart meter can tell if I am home, away, sleeping or just lying in my bed scratching my butt. And it dang sure cannot tell what movie I was watching on TV. A meter can tell when appliances turn on or off but has no way of knowing if a human flipped the switch or if it was automated.

    If a meter was designed to recognize power signatures, it could tell when a 1500 watt electric resistance appliance turned on but it could not tell if it was the hair dryer in the guest bath or the one in the master bath or the floor heater in the basement. If someone is that concerned about this, I suggested they give up technology, go live in a cave, put on their tin foil hat and watch for the black helicopters.

    DC

  7. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    Response to DC
    DC,
    I have spoken to builders who have installed energy monitoring equipment in new homes, and when they review the data, they have been surprised at how many details are revealed by the data.

    Most Americans are creatures of habit. I can assure you that if you give me smart meter data for two months, I can tell you when the occupants go to work, when they come home, and when they turn off the TV and go to bed. I can also tell you when they are on vacation.

  8. Eric Sandeen | | #8

    Response to Martin
    Martin, I should send you 2 months of my data, and see what you can tell me about me. It'd be an interesting challenge. ;) (With solar it'd be tougher, but I could send you actual house draw rather than net). What's the time resolution of a standard data-collecting smart meter?

  9. User avater
    James Morgan | | #9

    'nother response to Martin

    I can assure you that if you give me smart meter data for two months, I can tell you when the occupants go to work, when they come home, and when they turn off the TV and go to bed.

    If I wanted to get this information about you there's a number of other ways I could do it. Some of which would be much simpler and quite legal.

    I can also tell you when they are on vacation.

    Funny story. Back in the early 1970's the French national railway network SNCF outsourced its telephone reservations to the prison system. A large part of the business was to book Parisian families onto the overnight express to the French Riviera for their annual month-long summer vacation. Took them a couple of seasons before they realized the sudden spike in extremely thorough and efficient apartment burglaries during that time was no coincidence.
    Seriously though: thanks largely to the news media looking for scary stories people get very worked up about various innovative forms of cybercrime and intrusive 'surveillance'. Meanwhile numerous gaping holes in our illusory cocoon of privacy and security have been around unplugged for generations, such as the significant personal data that can sit in the average unlocked rural mailbox for many unsupervised hours every day. Wasn't so long ago when everyone had their home address, phone and SS# printed on their checks.

  10. Kevin Dickson, MSME | | #10

    Boulderites & Marijuana Growers
    The "Smart Grid City" implementation in Boulder, CO, was a complete failure for many reasons: http://www.smartgridnews.com/artman/publish/Business_Lessons_Learned/Xcel-s-SmartGridCity-Impressive-pioneer-or-epic-failure-3991.html

    Talking to Boulderites you learn that the information was generally useless. There is no easy way to achieve savings through off-peak rates or smart appliances, etc.

    Electricity usage is a really easy way to spot a marijuana grower. They typically have a summertime electric bill (mainly for lighting and ventilation) of $300-$600 in a neighborhood where the other small homes have a $60 bill.

    It's ironic how non-green that industry is! They don't use the sun for privacy reasons, and also to trick the plants into quicker growing and budding.

  11. D C | | #11

    Response To Martin
    I agree that you can make fairly accurate educated guesses about the occupants habits based on electric meter data (not just smart meters). However, smart meters are being portrayed as a "camera" into our lives. I state again: A meter can tell when appliances turn on or off but has no way of knowing if a human flipped the switch or if it was automated. There is no way anyone can tell I have gone to bed. They can only assume such, the same as they could if they stood outside and watched the lights inside go out. They can't tell that I had a cup of coffee at 9:00 AM. They might be able to tell a coffee maker heated water at 8:30 AM but not for what purpose. I can automate my house to the point that there is little chance you could detect I was on vacation by using meter data.

    There is much more personal data to be gained from cell phone and internet usage and yet the scare mongers focus on smart meters while doing so using their cell phones and internet connections. It doesn't take a smart meter to find a marijuana grower. That's easily done with dumb meters.

    Laws may already exist to protect electric consumers and if not, should be put in place. In Texas, if a customer requests their account be made private, utility companies cannot release any personal information, including meter data, without either consent of the customer, or a request from law enforcement (which more often than not requires a court order). This is one time I would have preferred automatic opt in for all consumers.

    Smart meters aren't really everything they are professed to be, but what they can do is help make the grid more efficient, lessen power outage events and durations, and ensure meter reads are more accurate. No, I do not work in the smart meter industry.

    Good discussion.

  12. Rachel White | | #12

    I have an smart meter in my house...
    and I have found that the information it provides about my usage has had little impact on either my behavior or my total usage. This may be because my family was conservation-minded prior to signing up for the program, which is currently in a pilot phase (in fact, our conservation-mindedness was partly what motivated me to sign up for the program--too many people like us signing up and the data will be pretty skewed).

    I think there are other factors at work too. First, neither the counter top display nor the web portal display current usage, only cumulative usage. In my experience real-time usage is much more likely to motivate me to action. I also have a TED and when I walk by it, I glance to see what we're currently using. If I notice that the usage is higher than my baseline, I try to figure why (maybe the kids left all the lights on in the basement playroom; now, there's a good place for an occupancy sensor).

    Tiered pricing has also had little effect on my behavior, at least until recently (I'll say more in a minute). 23₵ v. 17₵/kwh just doesn't feel like that big of a difference, especially since much of my usage can't be easily shifted around (OK maybe I could lock the kids out of the house after school and not cook dinner).

    But recently I noticed that my peak rate jumped from 23₵/kwh to 30₵/kwh. My off-peak rate stayed the same at 17₵/kwh. This change has given me pause: 30₵/kwh seems really high and is almost double my off-peak rate! Maybe I can switch some of my usage around... perhaps setting my dishwasher to go on after the rates go down at 9 pm, or washing and drying clothes mostly on the weekends.

    As for the EMF concerns--I agree with everyone else that this objection is somewhat ludicrous. But is there anyone else out there besides me who worries about EMF and isn't just "typing away happily" while wireless devices run in the background?

    As for the privacy concerns--just because hackers have other ways to get to our information doesn't mean we shouldn't worry that smart meters will add another way. That seems like false logic--not to mention throwing in the towel on what to my mind is a real and growing problem in our society.

    Great discussion!

  13. Eric Sandeen | | #13

    Response to Rachel
    Rachel, I agree that saying smart meters just add more (privacy concerns, emf, etc) to a life already full of those things doesn't mean that we should ignore them. Indeed, I think privacy should be a high priority for design of these systems, and I also think about all the EMF around us these days. I say that as I type away happily on my wireless laptop. ;)

    My point was more that when people seem to use those concerns to rally the troops against the meters, but don't appear to have those same concerns across a wider spectrum (no pun intended!) of their lives, that it makes me wonder if there is some other unstated reason they are pushing so hard against these things.

  14. User avater
    James Morgan | | #14

    Smart meters and CFL's
    Is there a pattern here? Certain types of national/regional energy initiative seem to attract a very vocal pushback from groups which include a large number of the liberal/greenie types who you'd expect to support those initiatives. No disrespect, I'm a liberal/greenie myself. But the privacy and emf concerns seem very similar to the mercury-in-CFL scare - the potential for harm in both cases seems tiny in comparison to existing ambient conditions, and the response quite out of proportion. Google, Facebook - and quite possibly the 'gummint' - already know far more about me than Duke Energy ever will, just as there's a thousand times more mercury in the landfill from old thermostats, bulb thermometers and standard fluorescent tubes than will ever come from all the CFL's in the world.

  15. User avater
    Elden Lindamood | | #15

    Security
    In my experience, criminals are both lazy and not very smart, and hackers want to commit crimes from their couch, not by shimmying through a window. In my opinion, to infer that someone will hack your smart meter and analyze the data to determine your "habits" in order to decide when to rob your home is patently idiotic. They may sit in a car and wait for me to leave for work, then steal my TV, but a mean dog can solve that problem, and my smart meter will have nothing to do with it.
    The people who think "the man" will monitor their habits are either planning on building a grow-house, or they are unnecesarilly paranoid. If the former is the case, the power company will figure it out anyway. If the latter is the case, then they can be ignored.

  16. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #16

    I am against smart meters. I
    I am against smart meters. I am for generally higher costs of energy (that is not locally produced.) We need to recreate millions of islands of humanity that is self sufficient. I am not saying for us to stop traffic between these entities, but for sure we should run inter-independently and not interdependently.

    All of our man-made systems need to be periodically tested. Millions of "islands" of us need to be just fine if the road into town is no longer.

    Smart meters are stupid and are part of the drive to us all becoming one... and as one... we will eventually perish. That is why nature came up with individualism and birth and death... in the first place and why we need to stay in harmony with this fact of nature as we build out the world. Right now when Europe gets a cold, we do... and as China goes all out to copy us only with four times the population the world is being greatly effected.

    We all need to learn much more about growth and decay and the exponential factor.

    We all need to learn a new word, inter-independence and unravel the idea of total connectiveness.

  17. Jackie W | | #17

    hostility to smart meters on the other side of the world
    I just had a smart meter installed. Here in Australia there is a mandatory rollout underway ( lucky us got to pay for the meters through our bills way way before we had them installed ). Some of the resistance has been because getting a meter pushed you onto a time of use tariff - not so much because of radiation. These tariffs as mentioned by a previous poster can save you money if you are able to load shift. If however you cannot do this it can result in significantly higher bills.

    I'm in an all electric house and I really don't want to wait until 11pm to cook my evening meal and I prefer to have my heating on when I'm awake and off when I'm asleep. We have been told "reduce your power bills - run your washing machine overnight" by one government department while another government department has set the cut off time for electrical appliances that are going to annoy your neighbours as 10pm ( which by the way I'm all in favour of as at least I get some respite from my noisy neighbour).

    I recommend that anyone who has a choice about installing a smart meter should sit down and do the maths - analyse their power usage - when do you want to use electricity - when can you realistically load shift - and look at the small print in the tariffs especially can they change the hours or introduce additional tariff slots. Here some energy retailers upped their profits by making their customers pay more in timeslots when the wholesale company was still charging them a lower rate. Be aware of the local EPA noise regulations - and even if your nearest neighbours are out of earshot is your washing machine / dishwasher / pool pump going to wake you up at 3am.

  18. Michael Armstrong | | #18

    Accuracy
    Quote from one "smart meter" manufacturer;

    "With its low starting watts and low watts lost, the meter captures more energy consumption than was measured in the past by electromechanical meters."

    From this, I infer that the new meters are more accurate, but as a consequence you will be charged more than you were with your old meter.

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