Consumer magazine covers the smart meter issue…
On 14 August 2015 Consumer published an article about smart meters on its website.
This post discusses some of the factual errors and important omissions in this article, commenting on text from the article. My text is in italics. The quotes from the article are in standard font.
The article began with a sensible statement to the effect that when Consumer had last covered the smart meter issue in 2008 the organisation predicted that smart meters would be great for the electricity industry but that it was “sceptical about the benefits for consumers”.
The author wrote: “Unfortunately, we were right – they’ve saved power companies money, but most of us are yet to enjoy lower costs or increased control over our electricity use.”
He also wrote that smart meters “remain the focus of health and privacy concerns.”
Yes, smart meters are a focus of health and privacy concerns, and for very good reasons, as detailed below.
Under the heading:
“What’s a smart meter?”
The author explains that homes have electricity meters and that “Smart meters send your electricity usage back to your power company throughout the day, removing the need for meter readers and making your bill far more accurate compared to the old analogue models.”
It is debatable whether smart meters are more accurate; in fact billing complaints soared after the widespread introduction of smart meters in Victoria, Australia.
He goes on to write that 1.2 million smart meters have been installed in NZ and “If you haven’t got one already, chances are you will soon – most meters have certification that expires in 2015, and many electricity retailers are using this as an opportunity to fit smart meters rather than re-certifying existing ones.”
NB: A new smart meter costs a lot more than a new electromechanical (Ferraris) meter.
He accurately comments that “Power companies like [smart meters] because they don’t have to pay meter readers and they make billing easier and more accurate. In theory, they could benefit consumers by offering real-time information about energy use, and enabling the use of ‘cost-reflective tariffs’, allowing you to save money by shifting your power use to cheaper off-peak periods.”
Please note that when “cost reflective tariffs” are used widely, people pay more for electricity depending on how much it costs to generate it at the time (whether the time concerned is a time of day or time of year).
In practice this could mean that people may pay up to double the price for electricity at peak times (when electricity is most in demand) relative to the off peak time price for electricity. This can lead to an increase in bills with no increase in consumption.
Theoretically, if the price of electricity varies throughout the day, people could save on their power bills by doing high-electricity demand tasks at off-peak times of the day, but for working age people who are not at home during the day and who need to go to bed reasonably early at night on week nights, this may not be possible.
There are new appliances that can be programmed to start later in the day/night; however, it is debatable whether people who would be most financially stressed by an increase in power bills could afford to buy new appliances in the hope that they will be able to save money on their electricity bill.
The author of the Consumer article comments that spreading electricity demand more smoothly over the day and night has “environmental benefits” as well as it potentially reduces the need for burning “fossil fuels”.
He also writes:
“Unfortunately for consumers, the majority of installed smart meters are basic models that only send data back to the power companies and display aggregate energy use (just like the old analogue meters), which means consumers miss out on many of the potential benefits like cost-reflective tariffs and real-time monitoring of their power use.”
As noted above, “cost reflective tariffs” could easily be seen as a greater disadvantage for consumers than an advantage.
Health and Safety Issues
Smart meters have been in the cross hairs of some groups both here and overseas, often relating to claims the radio frequency electromagnetic radiation they use to communicate is unsafe.
This type of radiation is also emitted by phones, microwaves and TV towers, and while it can’t damage living cells, it can heat body tissue.
Radiofrequency radiation in the microwave range (or microwave radiation, for short) has been shown to cause damage to cells.
While the above link relates to cell phone radiation, it is relevant to smart meters because many smart meters in NZ use the Vodafone GSM network.
“As a result,” says the Consumer writer, “New Zealand set maximum exposure limits for electromagnetic radiation.
The national standard that applies to microwave radiation (NZS2772.1;1999 is based on the assumption that if the level of microwave radiation is not sufficiently intense as to cause burns, it is safe. NZS 2772.1;1999 is designed to protect against the following effects: shocks, tissue heating and sudden death. It is not designed to protect against damage to cells or cancer.
For a perspective on the inadequacy of the current NZ standard (written by a specialist environmental lawyer) please see this link: http://www.stopsmartmeters.org.nz/latest-news/read-an-environmental-lawyers-perspective-on-proposed-changes-to-regulation-of-electromagnetic-radiation/
“A 2012 study by the University of Canterbury’s Electric Power Engineering Centre found standing a metre away from a smart meter broadcasting at full power exposes you to less than 35 percent of the maximum limit for electromagnetic radiation.”
This “study” appears to have been commissioned as evidence that smart meters are safe. It is frequently cited by electricity companies as “evidence” for this assertion.
A detailed critique of the University of Canterbury’s Electric Power Engineering Centre’s “study” (by Don Maisch PhD) may be accessed via this link: www.stopsmartmeters.org.nz/government-and-electricity-industry-positions/report-on-health-and-safety-aspects-of-electricity-smart-meters-debunked/
The Consumer author asserts: “But in practice, smart meters are usually located in out-of-the-way areas of the home, and only transmit for a maximum of a few minutes per day, so your exposure will usually be far lower than that.”
Actually, in older homes in NZ, smart meters are frequently on the exterior wall of a bedroom which can mean that people spend many hours a day in close proximity to the smart meter.
Smart meter transmission profiles vary according to the make and model, some are part of a mesh network which can mean that they produce frequent, brief pulses of microwave radiation even though the cumulative transmission time may only be a few minutes.
“However, some people report adverse reactions, including headaches, fatigue and skin rashes, to levels of electromagnetic radiation well below the maximum exposure limit. This is known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS). Sufferers often cite Wi-Fi, phone towers and high voltage power lines as aggravating their EHS.”
It is true that wi-fi, cell phone towers, high voltage power lines etc. can cause symptoms in people with EHS.
However according to the Consumer article author: “Professor Keith Petrie, an expert in Psychological Medicine at the University of Auckland, says the cause of EHS is imagined, but the effects are very real.“
Professor Keith Petrie’s reported assertion that “the cause of EHS is imagined” is incorrect.
EHS is a physiological condition and people do not have to know that they are exposed to a source of EMR or be worried that a source of EMR may cause symptoms in order to develop symptoms.
For an example of someone who reacted with serious symptoms from microwave radiation from a smart meter that she did not even know had been installed at her home, please see this link: http://stopsmartmeters.com.au/2014/03/26/sofias-story-punitive-power-and-the-smart-meter-tyranny/
“Negative expectations [the nocebo effect – Ed] cause these symptoms and simply telling people that something in the environment is harmful will cause symptoms and health complaints,” Professor Petrie said.
The nocebo effect can be ruled out as a factor in the case of many people who become ill after smart meter installations.
An international survey of people who had experienced new symptoms after a smart meter installation found that many had either no concerns about the safety of the smart meter prior to their becoming ill from the microwave radiation from the smart meter, or they did not know that the smart meter had been installed until they became ill and began to investigate possible causes for their symptoms.
It is a shame that the Consumer author did not consult someone who is well informed about electrohypersenstivity when writing his article; for example, Rob Hutchins from the Electrosensitivity NZ Trust which provides support to people in NZ who suffer from this condition.
Or the article’s author could have encouraged people to watch this video of a lecture by one of the world’s leading experts on electrohypersensitivity Professor Olle Johansson which may be accessed via this link: http://www.stopsmartmeters.org.nz/latest-news/neuroscientist-exposes-dangers-of-emr/
Or he could have referred people to the Austrian Medical Association’s Guidelines for Physicians. (An English translation of this document may be found at this link:
Instead, by choosing to quote someone who essentially dismissed electrohypersensitivity as a nocebo response the Consumer article may have increased prejudice against people who suffer from this debilitating condition.
A ten minute documentary that gives an insight into the difficulties that people who have EHS face may be found at this link: http://www.stopsmartmeters.org.nz/latest-news/electrohypersensitivity-a-short-film-by-time-magazine-free-to-watch-online/
The Consumer writer continues:
“This year, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks assessed more than 700 recent studies. They found no association between exposure to electromagnetic fields below existing limits and adverse health effects.”
This is by no means a unanimous opinion: earlier this year an international coalition of scientists petitioned the UN for better standards for devices that emit EMR, including smart meters.
It is also interesting to note that nowhere in the Consumer article is there any acknowledgement that the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified microwave radiation as a possible carcinogen (Type 2B). http://microwavenews.com/short-takes-archive/iarc-publishes-rf-cancer-review
The author recommends that people have their homes tested for “poor lighting or excessive noise” if they “believe that electromagnetic fields” are causing adverse health effects.
He adds: “If problems persist, talk to your doctor. They may be able to identify and treat any underlying conditions that may be causing the symptoms.”
Please note that is possible to test for microwave radiation from smart meters and other sources using meters that can be hired or purchased. (Not all meters are suitable for detecting radiation from smart meters as the microwave radiation pulses vary in duration and some are very brief; it is advisable to seek advice as to the suitability of any meter you may wish to hire or purchase.)
Of course, it is also prudent to see a physician about any symptoms you may have even if your home has been tested for EMR and the level is high.
Smart meters and privacy
Under the heading “Big brother” he continues:
“Constant monitoring of your electricity use raises the question: what does your power company do with the huge amounts of private data it collects?”
This is a good question.
He says: “The Office of the Privacy Commissioner received a number of complaints this year about that very thing, and while none were upheld, the commissioner raised concerns about how power companies were looking after this information.
“We share these concerns and think power companies need to clarify in their privacy policies how consumers’ data is handled and protected.”
Collecting data from smart meters, de-aggregating it and selling the data to other companies potentially provides another income stream for power companies. Some NZ electricity retailers straight out claim to own the data from their customers’ smart meters which suggests they may plan to put their profits ahead of their customers’ privacy. See:
Governments may also utilise data from smart meters: http://www.stopsmartmeters.org.nz/latest-news/could-the-government-have-a-use-for-smart-meter-data/
Many more links related to how smart meters may impact on privacy are here: http://www.stopsmartmeters.org.nz/category/privacy-2/
Under the heading: An opportunity squandered? The article continues:
“In 2009, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment released a report expressing concern the rollout of smart meters was being entirely driven by electricity retailers, with no government control.
“The commissioner recommended the government ensure all meters were really “smart”, by requiring them to have home area network (HAN) communication functionality, and in-home displays (IHDs). HANs allow meters to interact with smart appliances, for example switching on your dryer in the middle of the night when power’s cheapest. IHDs show real-time energy use – allowing you to identify power-hungry appliances and shift their use to off-peak times.”
New Zealanders are very lucky that smart meters with HAN capability have not been mandated. Mandating of this technology would expose home occupants to even more microwave radiation than is produced by a smart meter without HAN functionality.
This being said, the Landis+Gyr smart meters being installed by some lines companies in NZ contain a communications package which combines a modem and a ZigBee. (The default setting for the Zigbee is claimed to be off; however presumably the ZigBee can be activated remotely at any time that the company may choose.)
Two recent reports from NZers who suffered symptoms from this type of smart meter may be found here:
The writer continues: “However, the Electricity Commission (now the Electricity Authority) presented a report to the then Minister of Energy and Resources Gerry Brownlee advising against regulation. The report concluded the costs of adding HAN and IHD would exceed any economic and environmental benefits.”
Presumably this was because the EA recognised that most people already use electricity carefully and would gain very little from IHDs and that many households would not be able afford to replace existing appliances with fancy new so-called “smart” appliances that can interact with a HAN – even if they were prepared to increase the level of microwave radiation in their home to try to save a bit of money on their electricity bill.
The article continues:
“The Environment Commissioner raised concerns over the methodology used in the cost-benefit analysis. However, the minister accepted the report’s advice.
“As a result, electricity retailers installed meters capable of recording your power use, but that’s about it – most of us are stuck with basic models that can’t do much else. Some energy companies don’t see this as a problem, and say the industry is moving toward control and monitoring through the internet via online tools.
He cites Flick Electric as an example of a company making innovative use of smart meters, but laments that “Flick isn’t offering meters with home area network functionality or in-home displays – you have to log on to a personalised online portal to check your power use and spot prices.”
“The problem with online energy monitoring programmes is they’re usually opt-in, and require users to log in to the system to access energy use reports. We think a smart meter with an in-home display provides more accessible real-time feedback for consumers, rather than the half-hourly information provided by most online tools.
No one really needs an in-home display to be able to monitor their power usage: Unless there is a faulty appliance in a home, most people can make sensible decisions about conserving energy in their home through knowing how much each appliance is likely to consume. They can easily reduce bills by making sure that lights, appliances etc. are turned off when they are not needed.
Smart meters and your rights
Under the heading “Your rights” the article continues:
“There’s no law requiring you to have a smart meter. However, most retail power contracts say the provider can replace the meter at its discretion.
This is unfortunately true; electricity companies in NZ are increasingly using contracts to try to force smart meters on unwilling customers. Stop Smart Meters NZ wrote a submission to the consultation on the Unfair Contracts Act about this, as did some customers who had been adversely affected by the smart meter roll out and/or bullied by an electricity company, but our concerns appear to have been ignored.
“If you don’t want a smart meter, ask if you can opt out, or look at switching to another provider. But bear in mind, many meters’ certification expires this year so most, if not all, retailers will be opting to install smart meters.”
There are certified Ferraris meters on the NZ market as well as electronic meters that are not smart meters. However, electricity companies prefer to install smart meters, presumably due to the economic benefits for the industry.
The Consumer writer says: “You won’t have to pay for a smart meter if your provider’s rolling them out.”
(Depending on where you live you may already be paying for a smart meter via your electricity bill, such as people in this region, whose bills were upped 10% to pay for a smart meter roll out: http://www.stopsmartmeters.org.nz/uncategorized/south-canterbury-alpine-energy-to-begin-smart-meter-roll-out/)
Some consumers report higher bills after switching to a smart meter. This can happen if your old analogue meter was under-recording your usage, or your estimated usage from occasional meter reading was too low. Contact your energy provider if your new bills seem high – but beware, if they don’t find any faults you could be liable for the cost of the inspection.
For some people, after a smart meter installation, power bills can go up astronomically as in these examples: http://www.stopsmartmeters.org.nz/uncategorized/huge-bill-increase-after-smart-meter-installed/
The article concludes by discussing how you may have to pay for a smart meter to be installed if you request one and that if you think your meter is faulty and it is not, you may be charged for the call out.
If you’ve got a dispute with your power company over a smart meter, we recommend contacting the Electricity and Gas Complaints Commissioner.
The grand conclusion:
The author writes: “We say New Zealand missed a golden opportunity to give consumers more control over their power use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In our view, the failure to regulate the rollout of smart meters was a mistake.”
We are very lucky in NZ to have a choice not to have a smart meter, given the health and privacy etc. risks that they pose.
“Power retailers need to be clear and accountable on how they handle and protect the personal data collected by smart meters. Companies’ privacy policies should include information on how they use smart meter data.”
Very good point!
NB: The original article on Consumer magazine’s website may be read at: https://www.consumer.org.nz/articles/smart-meters