Seattle's "Smart" Meter Switch

As Seattle City Light switches to new “smart” meters, privacy and health advocates get charged up.
Dana Standish  |   October 2012   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION

Coming soon to a house near yours—well, actually it’s coming to your house, if you live within the purview of Seattle City Light—an advanced electricity metering system that will make you very happy (according to City Light) and very sad (according to privacy and health activists in other areas where this technology has been deployed).

I think smart metering offers great potential benefits to customers and our community as a whole,” says Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien, chair of the council’s Energy and Environment Committee. O’Brien says that smart metering will increase energy efficiency by allowing consumers to check their energy usage on their home computers whenever they want, thereby giving them a way to manage their energy consumption.

“My hope is that with smart metering, it might one day be possible to decide how much you want to spend each month on electricity from City Light, and as you approach that limit, you might get a warning via text, e-mail or phone that allows you to adjust your consumption accordingly for the rest of the month,” he says.

Faster outage response, decreased labor costs, control over your bills, environmental responsibility—what’s not to like? Plenty, say some privacy and health advocates.

The move to advanced metering is part of Seattle City Light’s six-year strategic plan, which was approved by the City Council in July 2012. In our area, as of September, 2011, there were 17,000 smart meters in use by Tacoma Public Utilities (with a projected goal of 152,000 households); 13,400 additional meters (with a goal of 60,000) are in use as part of the Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project, which includes utilities in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.

In the smart metering system, an electric meter sends its message wirelessly to City Light on a continuous or interval basis. “In one form or another, we have been trying to get this approved since 2006,” says Kelly Enright, customer care director for City Light. “Many of our complaints are about inaccurate readings,” she says, referring to the current system, which employs human meter readers. “Smart meters give an accurate meter reading. Also, customers can control their usage. You can go online to see your usage on a minute-to-minute basis, instead of waiting 60 days for your bill.”

Other benefits touted by City Light include improvement in outage management response, because the system will instantly know when an outage occurs; more responsible environmental stewardship, because there will be no need for meter readers to burn gas driving around; and reduction of labor costs, due to the fact that meter readers will no longer be needed.

Job loss in the current economic climate may not sound like a plus. “Like many areas of our business, the meter reading workforce is aging, and a number of folks will retire during this time,” says Enright. “For those who remain, Seattle City Light is very committed to beginning the process early to make sure that meter readers can be retrained and redeployed for positions within Seattle City Light.” IBEW Local 77, the union representing electrical meter readers, did not respond to a request for comment.

Faster outage response, decreased labor costs, control over your bills, environmental responsibility—what’s not to like? Plenty, say privacy and health advocates in areas where smart metering is already being used. The radiofrequency and microwave (RF/MW) radiation used by the system as it relays its data sends a jolt of concern through people who are reluctant to add more radiation exposure to their daily lives. “A communication system that uses wireless technology [emitting microwave radiation] is a concern,” says Christine Hoch of the Center for Safer Wireless (centerforsaferwireless.org), an advocacy group based in Virginia.

Her group recommends more research into the health effects of the radiation and caution on the part of utilities before they rush headlong into a new system that has been met with customer dissatisfaction in some places. The Center for Safer Wireless website lists anecdotal reports of possible adverse health effects, such as ringing in the ears, insomnia, strong headaches, nausea, heart palpitations, memory loss, anxiety and pain that people claim began occurring after smart meters were installed. City Light says it is “continuing to research this issue.”

“People need to be informed about the benefits and disadvantages of smart metering,” says Hoch. She says that the downsides of the system do not always come to light. “We don’t have the deep pockets of the utilities to be able to adequately inform people about the disadvantages of the smart meters,” she says. “Usually what happens in these situations is that the powers that be move forward…until they are challenged in the courts.”

And privacy advocates point to the amount of peripheral information that can be collected by the devices—such as what type of appliances and medical equipment you use and for how long, and whether you are away on vacation. Information on behavior inside your home can be read from a distance without your consent, and that information is now big business. As The Washington Post reported in a June 6 story, “Big Data from Social Media, Elsewhere Online Redefines Trend-Watching,” personal data on consumers is now being classified as a separate economic asset, like oil or minerals, by the World Economic Forum.

Smart metering has begun in gas, water and electricity utilities in cities across the United States, much of it funded as part of the Smart Grid program that was instituted by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka the stimulus package) of 2009. According to The Edison Foundation’s Institute for Electric Efficiency, a Washington, D.C.–based group dedicated to better living through electricity, 27 million advanced meters had been installed in the United States as of September, 2011. Projections state that by 2015, 54 percent of the U.S.—that works out to 65 million households—will have switched to advanced metering.

Still, the issue has caused headaches not only in those claiming to suffer from the ill effects of microwave radiation, but for some public utilities as well. Stop Smart Meters (stopsmartmeters.org), a California-based advocacy group, cites a moratorium imposed on smart metering by the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, pending research into complaints about possible health effects, concern over privacy violations and reports of inaccurate meter readings. In response to consumer pressure, Pacific Gas & Electric recently submitted a proposal to the California Public Utilities Commission that would allow people to have the radio transmitters in their smart meters disabled—for a charge to the consumer of $135–$270 per household plus an additional monthly fee, which has further outraged the utility’s customers. Hoch says she isn’t aware of any groups in our area that have organized opposition to the new system.

City Light began an advanced metering pilot program in about 500 households in all parts of its service area in 2009. The strategic plan calls for conversion of the system’s aging electromechanical meters to a smart metering system over the next three years. City Light estimates that it will cost approximately $88 million to convert 408,000 meters. According to Enright, the analog meters now in use are obsolete. When they break, they must be replaced by digital models (which have their own set of problems; meter readers report that the digital meters are hard to read when the sun is out). To pay for the upgrades, the strategic plan calls for an average 4.7 percent rate hike over the next six years; this works out to an average increase of $34.86 per year per household, with financial aid available for low-income customers. Enright estimates that the system will pay for itself after nine years, and says the meters will not need to be replaced for at least 20 years. Regarding an opt-out clause, she comes up with a definite maybe: “Our intention is for customers to be able to [opt out], but we have not finalized the process yet.”

How can City Light avoid the opposition that has energized people in other utility service areas? “The key is education,” says Enright. “Any kind of change—it takes time for people to get used to things.” City Light customers should be amping up for an electrifying couple of years.