Busting the myths about “smart meters”
Chuck Moore, CEO
By now, most Americans have likely heard of the “smart grid.” This phrase is being used to describe the computerization of America’s electrical infrastructure. The purpose of this computerization is to improve the reliability, efficiency, resiliency and security of the electric grid.
A key component of the smart grid is an advanced metering infrastructure, also known as AMI in the utility world. AMI systems utilize digital meters as well as computer technology to measure electric use at homes and businesses more precisely than was possible with analog meters. The digital meters communicate via radio or the existing power lines and have been loosely termed as “smart meters.” Over the past several years, Navopache Electric Cooperative (NEC) has been installing our AMI system. AMI benefits NEC members with greater accuracy in billing, faster outage restoration, operational savings versus manual meter reading and detailed data that you and NEC can use to manage electric use much more accurately.
Unfortunately, a number of myths have developed over the years concerning smart meters. These myths can be classified into three categories: privacy concerns, security, and health effects. Let’s take a look at each, starting with privacy.
NEC takes great pains to keep your information private – and that information includes the details of your electric use. NEC complies with the Arizona Administrative Code R14-2-201(A)(2) which does not permit sharing of member’s information except by written authorization by the member, requested by law enforcement or public agency, the Arizona Corporation Commission or legitimate account collection activities. The myths are that the data collected can tell when you are home or away and exactly what you are doing when you are there and that this data is being given to the government. Naturally, the data will show when you are home because for most families, energy consumption is higher at those times. But having said that, the current AMI meter CANNOT identify what activities are taking place or the specific appliance in use and NEC does not furnish your individual data to the government. This myth is simply unfounded.
What about the myth that these meters actually make the electric grid less secure by providing an avenue for hackers to break into systems through the smart meter and wreak havoc? While hackers continually attempt to break into electric systems, their focus is at higher levels in the electric grid operation. Hacking a meter is unlikely for a variety of reasons. Hackers like to work remotely via the Internet, and smart meters don’t offer that option. Radio-based smart meters require the hacker to be nearby to catch the weak communication signal, break the proprietary communication protocol and to be there for extended periods of time to collect the short burst of data sent. The data transmitted is the meter identification number and the electrical usage. Therefore, smart meters are an unlikely and unprofitable target for hackers.
Finally there are the myths surrounding smart meters and ill effects on health. These concerns state that having the radio-based smart meter is the equivalent to having a cell tower attached to the side of your home. Again, this is unfounded. Let’s look at why. Number one is that they communicate intermittently for a few minutes a day. These devices are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, and their output is well below the levels this Federal agency sets. As one doctor observed, the radio waves emitted are more like those of a cordless phone or wireless router. Radio waves emitted by smart meters are much weaker and less frequent than other sources we use on a daily basis.
We will all benefit from the continued development of America’s smart grid and can rest easy with the knowledge that the rumors surrounding radio-based smart meters don’t hold water.