A well-designed smart grid will drive the clean energy revolution we need – securing our energy independence, increasing our ability to compete in the global clean energy market and empowering consumers – all while protecting our air, water and the health of our children.
Yet in a few places, there has been a backlash against smart meters, which are key pieces of the infrastructure needed to make our 100-year old electricity grid ‘smart.’ Wireless smart meters are now the subject of considerable media attention in California for their use of radio frequencies (RF) – a type of energy that is used in cell phones, microwaves and other every day products.
As we invest billions of dollars to upgrade the infrastructure that literally powers our economy, utilities and policymakers need to address the disconnect between the grid’s huge potential public health benefits and some individuals' concerns over the wireless technology that smart meters use to transmit data between customers and utilities.
Let’s start with the public health benefits. America’s outdated energy system is wasteful, expensive and a major source of pollution. Once a smart grid is in place, it will improve air quality and the health of millions of Americans affected by pollution that is often too dangerous to breathe.
A smart grid will:
- Help consumers save money by enabling them to see and manage their energy use while reducing harmful air pollution. As a result, consumers will be able to shift their demand for energy to when it is cheaper, which will save them money during ‘peak’ times when utilities have to run the dirtiest and most expensive types of power plants. With greater use of this "demand response" option, California alone could avoid building or running more than 100 of these ‘peaker’ power plants, which we pay for with our dollars and our health. Nationally, demand response could avoid up to 2,000 peaker plants.
- Make it possible to adjust demand to follow variable wind and solar supplies and thus enable us to use more clean, renewable, home-grown energy. This will reduce the environmental damage done by mining and burning coal and natural gas and cut harmful and costly air pollution.
- Facilitate the switch to clean electric vehicles by allowing drivers to “smart charge” them at night when energy, including pollution-free wind power, is abundant and cheap – cutting foreign oil imports and the environmental damage done by domestic oil drilling.
- Make the transmission and distribution grid more efficient. For example, the ability to optimize voltage on power lines will save three percent of all of the power generated in the U.S., worth roughly $10 billion a year.
The lesson from this disconnect in California isn’t to stop smart meters from being installed altogether: it is that the effort should be undertaken with the customer foremost in mind. Customers need to better understand the benefits of the smart grid and the critical role that smart meters play in achieving them. They also need to know what the studies show about the wireless technology they use.
Utilities can easily provide consumers with key findings from many of the studies done on radio frequencies since they’ve become commonplace. A recent in-depth review of the scientific literature by the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that “current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields.” The review states that “in the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation, approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals.” As is the case with chemicals, EDF supports continuing research as wireless technology becomes even more popular.
Since exposure is determined by signal strength and proximity to the device emitting the signal, there will likely be unique situations that require special attention. For example, multi-family dwellings may have many smart meters grouped together in one location. This concentration could expose residents who live close to those meters to higher levels of RF energy. One way utilities can address concerns raised in those situations and keep meters working as planned would be to use steel shielding and partner with companies that can provide RF absorbers or reflectors to households.
Additionally, some individuals describe themselves as having electromagnetic hypersensitivity, which they believe causes them to have headaches, fatigue, nausea and insomnia. Utilities can work with these customers by facilitating options that address their concerns.
What will utilities get in return for their proactive customer service? At minimum, they stand to gain a customer base that is comfortable with the technology. At best, a loyal community that understands the benefits of the smart grid and takes an active role in transforming the way we use energy and protecting not only the environment but everyone’s quality of life. What will we all gain? At the micro level, more reliable service and lower electric bills. At the macro level, a stronger economy, energy independence, cleaner air and a healthier environment for our children.