Smartmeters: Radiation & Other FUD

Our local, city owned, electricity utility has been working on a project to upgrade all our electricity meters to smart meters. For those that have not heard of these before, a smart meter is essentially the same as a modern digital electricity meter (so none of the moving parts of the classic electricity meter) with the addition of a radio that allows it to send data back to the utility periodically.

In most cases, they record the meter’s value every 15 minutes and then upload blocks of data to the utility periodically.

Concerns

When ever a utility does this, there are a set of concerns that are brought up around these meters. There is very little data to support any of them, and some of the scenarios I’ve seen go beyond incredulous. Here are the ones I’ve heard most recently:

  • The new meters will cause my bill to increase;
  • The new meters are an invasion of privacy because the utility will be able to tell what devices I am using, and sell that data to third parties for advertising;
  • The new meters will generate electromagnetic radiation leading to health problems for myself and my family.

Let’s look at each of these and see the problems with these complaints.

Increased Bills

One of the most common concerns, and I’ve seen this already being claimed in Alameda, is that the new meters cause bills to increase. Often, that is simply the result of old mechanical meters being replaced by newer, more accurate digital ones. Be happy you were being undercharged previously! Those with newer meters, especially digital ones, shouldn’t see any difference.

In Alameda, there was also a rate increase that came into effect around the same time as the smart meters were deployed. A combination of increased rates for the upper tiers of usage and a reduction in the size of the lower tiers leads to pretty dramatic increases for even moderate users (our bill jumped around 20% – and that was before our smartmeter was installed). Perhaps the timing of the upgrades could have been better planned to be after the rate hike knowing this had been an issue elsewhere.

Invasion of Privacy

Perhaps the most ridiculous claims I’ve seen have been around the potential for invasion of privacy is this (found online on a thread complaining about smart meters). The meter was able to tell that a blow dryer was being used in the early evening and somehow the utility was able to conclude from that information that the young mother in the property was going out partying and not looking after her children, so social workers would need to be sent to take her kids away. Seriously.

Firstly, the data the meter reports is power consumed in 15 minute blocks of time. There really isn’t a way to tell whether that was used by a blow dryer, a kettle, a microwave or even an iron.

Secondly, even if by some smart analysis, the meter did identify the source of consumption as a blow dryer, how do you conclude the user of said dryer is going out partying? Or even whose hair is being dried (maybe the kids just had their bath & hair wash).

Thirdly, I don’t believe electricity utilities have detailed information about the number of people, their ages and their relationships to each other associated with utility accounts. My AMP account was opened before I was married & I’ve never let them know I got married (nor have they ever asked). They certainly don’t know we have kids.

Finally, even if the young mother in the house was getting ready to go out partying, how do they know she doesn’t have a babysitter? Or that the kids are not being watched by their father, or grandparents. Utility companies have no way to know that, nor would they want to be in the business of knowing that. They sell electricity; they don’t spy on their customers.

The Data

The reality is that they could use the data they collect to sell your contact info to companies that might want to sell you energy related products. Solar panels, appliances, air conditioners, etc. But AMP’s new privacy policy explicitly says they won’t do that. (Of course, that could change, but I don’t see why it would & as a public utility they have to get it approved.)

The other way to sell the data is anonymized or aggregated for research purposes. They could do that today with monthly data too; the smartmeter just improves the granularity of the data and allows for more accurate correlation to other data, like weather data.

The most likely beneficiary of the data, however, is the consumer. By analyzing data from everybody, they might be able to flag issues that are causing you to spend more than your neighbors on electricity & fix it. Monthly data lets them tell you where you stand relative to others (we have been getting those reports from AMP for a while now), but the improved granularity might help them suggest the causes or at least tell you what times of day your usage is above average.

Electromagnetic Radiation

I was reminded to write this article in response to an article on the front page of the Alameda Sun paper this week:

I’m not sure about the numbers in the article for number of transmissions per day. The answers I was given by AMP were similar in terms of the overall daily duration (~83 seconds), and the power levels, but I was told there are only an average of 7 data packets per day. The number in the article, 1440 data transmissions, would suggest one per minute. That doesn’t make sense when the granularity of the data being collected is 15 minutes.

I can believe that the device contacts the local ZigBee router though once per minute (essentially a keep alive operation on the network). That would also explain some of the spikes shown in the videos on YouTube. On the subject of those videos, there are several other issues with them that make me a little skeptical of the results:

  • The meters being used react to a wide range of frequencies (in one video, the meter looks like a Cornet ED-88T, which covers 100MHz to 8GHz). With a range of frequencies that wide, there is no guarantee that what it is showing is the emissions from the meter unless steps are taken to ensure external sources are not present at the same time. Standing on a street in Alameda, there are all kinds of other radios around (people’s Wi-Fi, mobile phone networks, the radios used by the city & emergency services, and more). Unless the meter can be locked to the frequency used by the meters (they are operating in the 900MHz ZigBee band in Alameda) and all other radios in that same part of the spectrum can be removed, these measurements are inconclusive at best.
  • One of the videos suggests that the power level is much higher than claimed by AMP. But the measurements I saw quoted were from holding the meter right next to the meter. The measurements quoted by AMP were power levels per square centimeter at two feet from the meter. RF power levels diminish rapidly as you move away from their source (proportional to the square of the distance). The difference in signal strength at 1 inch from the antenna compared to 24 inches is huge. Walls will attenuate it even further.

All of that aside, these meters are a long way from the most powerful sources of RF in our environment. Cell towers and phones transmit more often and at higher power levels. Then there are the continuous broadcasts from TV and radio stations, and our emergency services. Do they add to it? Sure, but a tiny amount. Hard to believe they could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but I guess for some they could be.

Living in the Bay Area, with all of its high tech, might not be the best choice in that case – I have 35 devices currently on my WiFi network here – mostly IoT devices; I know others with more than that. And then there are Bluetooth devices & the RF links between the light switches. There is also WiFi on the ferries, the buses, in most stores (for point of sale equipment if not also for customers). I can see over 100 WiFi access points from my desk at work, and at least as many Bluetooth devices most days.

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