This article was originally published on 4/23/12, and has been re-published with an update.

 

Today, I had a meeting with the Executive Vice President and the Manager of Engineering & Operations of my utility company. The purpose was to discuss my concerns about our recent discovery that Smart Meters are being installed in area homes, and to request that they consider offering their customers an option to opt-out.

I’ve actually been in communication with these two particular gentlemen for the past few months, speaking at good length over the phone, and via email. They’ve both been super nice, and more than willing to discuss my concerns and answer any questions I’ve had. And although they were doing their best to appease me, I think after today they see that I am adamant in my stance that I want nothing to do with having one of these meters on my home.

If you are one of those people who know nothing about Smart Meters and the controversy surrounding this fast spreading technology, you need to google it and do all the reading you can. I’m warning you, it ain’t pretty. Don’t believe everything you read, there is always misinformation out there (like that these meters can stop pacemakers- not true). But there is also plenty of troubling truth to be found as well.

There are many concerns arising around this new system being rolled out nationwide. People are complaining of RF radiation exposure, and many with electromagnetic sensitivity are reporting experiencing debilitating side effects from the pulses emitted by these meters. Whistle-blowers are warning of the vulnerability this new technology will have to being hacked since customers’ information is transmitted wirelessly. And there is a lot of speculation as to how one’s household electric consumption information could be used by thieves, law enforcement, health insurance companies, divorce attorneys, and for advertisers to analyze. There have also been reports of house fires sparked by faulty meters, and significant increases in power bills once these meters were installed.

But among these, my biggest fear is the unknown. Where will this technology lead? Who will have control of it? And at what point will I not be in control of my household’s electricity usage?

I think the best way for me to explain more about how Smart Meters work and my concerns is to let you read the main body of a letter I drafted to give to the Executive Vice President of my utility company. After speaking with them today, it is my understanding that not all of these concerns apply to the TWACS meters my co-op is installing. Some issues are still very much valid and disturbing, and some issues apply to different models of Smart Meters. I did not discuss my concerns over the health ramifications of RF radiation exposure, because in previous discussions it was clarified that these particular meters transmit via powerlines and not wirelessly. Please keep these things in mind and realize that there are different risks with the various models of Smart Meters on the market.

Here’s a good portion of what I wrote:

The more I study about Smart Meters and the unfolding plan for a nationwide Smart Grid, the more uneasy and adamant I grow in my stance that I want nothing to do with this system. There are entirely too many risks to homeowners, and little assurance of any benefits in the long run.

Here are my growing concerns:

  1. Effects on Economy
  2. Cybersecurity
  3. Privacy and Violation of Fourth Amendment Rights
  4. Increased Costs
  5. What’s Next??

Effects on Economy

“The United States Department of Energy (USDOE) issued a Notice of Intent and a draft Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) that will lay the groundwork for providing nearly $4 billion in American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds to support smart grid projects.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smart_grid_in_the_United_States)

I find it ironic that the very “Act” that is supposed to build our economy is actually acting as a catalyst to the job loss of thousands of American men and women who have formerly worked in the capacity of meter reading.

After my family has endured my husband’s three layoffs in the last two years, of which we are still struggling through, we are all too familiar with how job loss can cripple ones financial situation. I wonder how many local families will suffer this same experience. How will it effect their spending, how will their reluctance or inability to spend effect other local merchants, and how will these layoffs possibly increase dependence upon our welfare system and in turn increase the tax burden on all of us? I’m afraid the loss of hundreds of meter readers across (our state), and thousands across the rest of the United States, will have devastating consequences. There will be an undesired trickle down effect.

And where exactly is this grant money coming from if not from our and our children’s pockets? I feel like we are being forced to buy and accept a product we detest, with no other alternative but to go completely without electricity. If we could afford to go off-grid, we’d do it in a heartbeat, but unfortunately we do not have that luxury at this time. And so we are being backed into a corner, so to say.

Cybersecurity

Because information collected from Smart Meters will be sent back to the utility provider wirelessly, it is just as vulnerable as anything else on the web. That is very disconcerting to me, and it should be to you as well. Here is a disturbing quote from a government website regarding the security of Smart Meters,

“Installation of “smart” devices gives potential hackers new targets for exploitation. Because these devices monitor and collect large amounts of information, there is concern that customer privacy could be at risk. Since advanced metering infrastructure often relies on wireless technologies, hackers could infiltrate the computer systems to extract recorded information, insert malicious software, identify network authentication keys, and then access other parts of the system using the grid’s communication systems.” (http://www.smartgrid.gov/the_smart_grid)

Hackers have already begun demonstrating how fragile and easily manipulated these systems are. Think of the chaos that could be created if one malicious individual decided to take down the grid with the stroke of a keyboard. It is ludicrous to me to interconnect our entire electrical grid, and expose our nation’s infrastructure to the potential for terrorists to execute a cyber-attack of catastrophic proportions.

“While no major cyber attacks on the U.S. electric grid have been reported, Russia and China have “probed the electrical grid to find vulnerabilities to exploit if they needed to attack it,” Lewis said, citing the National Security Agency. “The risk is that the attack capabilities are spreading, and countries like Iran and North Korea, along with jihadis and anarchists, will eventually be able to attack.

Power companies have become more exposed to hackers and cyber terrorists as they replace older equipment with digital devices and the electrical grid becomes more interconnected through the Internet.” (James Lewis, technology program director at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington)

Not only that, but how could this information be used to victimize one particular individual? And what could a would-be attacker determine from my household’s electrical footprint?

“… consumer data moving through a smart grid becomes stored in many locations both within the grid and within the physical world. Thus, because it is widely dispersed, it becomes more vulnerable to interception by unauthorized parties and to accidental breach. The movement of data also increases the potential for it to be stolen by unauthorized third parties while it is in transit, particularly when it travels over a wireless network—or through communications components that may be incompatible with one another or possess outdated security protections.”

“Criminals could use it to time a burglary and figure out which appliances they would like to steal.”

“By examining smart meter data, it is possible to identify which appliances a consumer is using and at what times of the day, because each type of appliance generates a unique electric load “signature.” The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) wrote in 2010 that “research shows that analyzing 15-minute interval aggregate household energy consumption data can by itself pinpoint the use of most major home appliances.” “Similarly, software based algorithms would likely allow a person to extract the unique signatures of individual appliances from meter data that has been collected less frequently and is therefore less detailed.”

“By combining appliance usage patterns, an observer could discern the behavior of occupants in a home over a period of time. For example, the data could show whether a residence is occupied, how many people live in it, and whether it is “occupied by more people than usual.” According to the Department of Energy, smart meters may be able to reveal occupants’ “daily schedules (including times when they are at or away from home or asleep), whether their homes are equipped with alarm systems, whether they own expensive electronic equipment such as plasma TVs, and whether they use certain types of medical equipment.”

(CRS Report for Congress, Smart Meter Data: Privacy and Cybersecurity;

It is not unreasonable for me, as a mother and stay-at-home wife, to be concerned about the potential for this technology to put me and my family at risk. There are already enough dangers out there that I feel I need to be prepared for, I find no reason to unnecessarily add another to my list of worries. I do not want to find myself in a situation one day where an individual has disrupted power to my home (disabling any lines of communication to outside help), and I am left to my own defenses. We live in a very secluded area, and are already highly vulnerable. The thought of strapping a wireless monitoring device to my home, and having all of my information floating around in cyperspace, “hoping” it doesn’t get into the wrong hands… that just does not sit well with me.

Privacy and Violation of Fourth Amendment Rights

            I am also deeply concerned about how data history collected by Smart Meters and maintained by my utility company could be used in the future. Who will have access to this information, and how will they use it?

“Additional consumer privacy concerns surround the role energy usage information may play in crime enforcement and the potential for energy information to be sold to outside vendors without consumer consent.” (http://www.smartgrid.gov/the_smart_grid)

“In United States v. Kyllo, a federal agent subpoenaed the suspect’s electricity usage records from the utility and “compared the records to a spreadsheet for estimating average electrical use and concluded that Kyllo’s electrical usage was abnormally high, indicating a possible indoor marijuana grow operation.” If law enforcement officers obtained near-real time data on a consumer’s electricity usage from the utility company, their ability to monitor household activities would be amplified significantly. For example, by observing when occupants use the most electricity, it may be possible to discern their daily schedules.” (CRS Report for Congress, Smart Meter Data: Privacy and Cybersecurityhttp://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42338.pdf)

“With smart meters, police will have access to data that might be used to track residents’ daily lives and routines while in their homes, including their eating, sleeping, and showering habits, what appliances they use and when, and whether they prefer the television to the treadmill, among a host of other details.” (CRS Report for Congress, Smart Meter Data: Privacy and Cybersecurityhttp://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42338.pdf)

The Fourth Amendment protects our rights to have privacy within our homes against unreasonable search and seizure. However, because this technology is so new and cases on this issue are lacking, it is unclear how the Fourth Amendment would apply to protection of information gathered by Smart Meters. It could very well fall into the category of the third-party public records theory. According to (my state’s) law, billing information compiled and maintained by utility services can lawfully be disclosed to assist law enforcement, and judicial officers in the performance of their duties.

People should never have to fear the potential for the internal activities of their homes to be monitored and scrutinized. Our home is our sanctuary.  When we lose the freedom to live as we choose within the walls of our personal refuge, we have lost all dignity and rights as a free people.

Increased Costs

             Another concern I have is that once the utility company is able to determine the specific times of my electricity consumption, I will be charged more during certain hours, resulting in an increased power bill.

“Complementary policies (to Smart Meters), which often must be established by utility regulators, are required to ensure that use of these technologies results in the desired benefits. Such policies may include… rate designs that encourage customers to save energy…”

“For example, if at one moment electricity demand is very high, signals can be sent to customers to discourage unnecessary use of electricity. These signals may help balance demand throughout the day by encouraging customers to switch use of appliances from peak demand times to low demand times. They also could encourage customers to simply use less electricity.”

How will these “complementary policies” effect my day-to-day life? Will I be forced to wait until the middle of the night to do my laundry because I can’t afford to do it in the middle of the day any longer?

“Many of the benefits of a smart grid come from expected changes in consumer behavior. However, it is difficult to accurately predict how customers will react to price signals. It is possible that customers may not change their electricity demands much, even when faced with different prices at different times of the day. For example, in Connecticut, customers were given a globe that glowed different colors based on the price of electricity. Even with this visual signal, however, customers did not change their electricity usage behavior to the extent predicted.

If customer demand is not notably affected, then the costs of smart grid implementation may outweigh the benefits. Putting into place proper, complementary policies (such as funding broader programmatic efforts to educate and encourage customers to save energy and adopting fair rates and interconnection standards for distributed generation) are therefore critical for successful implementation of a smart grid.” (http://www.epa.gov/statelocalclimate/documents/pdf/background_paper_smartgrid_4-29-2010.pdf)

Does our future hold the challenge of trying to keep track of fluctuating electricity prices? How is one supposed to manage a household not knowing how much money they are being charged from one hour to the other?

And will this new system actually save the utility company, and the consumers, money over the long run?

“While the smart grid may reduce total electric grid costs through labor savings and potential efficiency improvements, the significant cost of implementing the system can erase some of those savings. Because smart grids rely on sophisticated technology for communication and control activities, large investments in infrastructure are needed.

Decision makers must therefore weigh the expected benefits against the expected costs. However, there is a large degree of uncertainty regarding costs, making it difficult for decision makers to assess how much it will cost to implement a smart grid system. Unlike traditional utility infrastructure such as power plants and their pollution control technologies, which can operate with minor or no modifications for decades, smart grid technologies may need to be upgraded every few years. The industry is working to establish interoperability standards to reduce the long-term costs of deploying smart grid technologies.”

(http://www.epa.gov/statelocalclimate/documents/pdf/background_paper_smartgrid_4-29-2010.pdf)

What’s Next??

             The more I read about the government’s plans for a nationwide “Smart Grid”, the more I want to just disconnect altogether and live like they did in the good ol’ days. Seriously. The plans in progress are scary. We are on the fast track to losing all control over our daily lives.

Eventually, every home will be equipped with a Smart Thermostat, and Smart Appliances, which “talk” to the Smart Meter and share information on their electricity consumption and carbon emissions (which we may be taxed on over time). These appliances will be controlled over the internet, by users and by utility companies.

“The grants will also support the installation of other smart grid components, including more than 1 million in-home energy displays, 170,000 smart thermostats, and 175,000 other load control devices to enable consumers to reduce their energy use. The funding will help expand the market for smart washers, dryers, and dishwashers, so that U.S. residents can further control their energy use and lower their electricity bills.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smart_grid_in_the_United_States)

“A key element that allows all of the emerging Smart Grid technologies to function together is the interactive relationship between the grid operators, utilities, and you. Computerized controls in your home and appliances can be set up to respond to signals from your energy provider to minimize their energy use at times when the power grid is under stress from high demand, or even to shift some of their power use to times when power is available at a lower cost.” (http://www.smartgrid.gov/the_smart_grid)

To be perfectly honest, I don’t like the idea of having to program my appliances to only run during certain times of the day. And I certainly don’t like the idea of somebody else having the power to determine when my appliances run!

“In your smart home, many of your appliances will be networked together, allowing you to access and operate them through your EMS (energy management system). An EMS provides the ability to turn on your heater or air conditioner from work when you’re about to go home or keep track of the energy use of specific appliances or equipment—like tracking the energy use of your pool pump, or seeing how much energy you saved with your new Energy Star dishwasher.

Smart appliances will also be able to respond to signals from your energy provider to avoid using energy during times of peak demand. This is more complicated than a simple on and off switch. For instance, a smart air conditioner might extend its cycle time slightly to reduce its load on the grid; while not noticeable to you, millions of air conditioners acting the same way could significantly reduce the load on the power grid. Likewise, a smart refrigerator could defer its defrost cycle until off-peak hours, or a smart dishwasher might defer running until off-peak hours.” (http://www.smartgrid.gov/the_smart_grid)

This entire system is a dangerous, slippery slope. At what point will I lose my ability to influence the matter? At what point will I completely depend upon what somebody else dictates for my household’s energy consumption? How long before the government steps in and mandates exactly how much power we can use, and when we can use it?

My concerns are valid, the threats are real, and your customers deserve to be able to say, “No Thank You” to the risks associated with this new technology. There are several options you can offer to your customers who would rather keep their current, reliable, safe meters. I ask again that you consider implementing these alternatives, and allow us an opportunity to opt-out.

Thank you. I look forward to your response.

 

I discussed these issues with my service providers for over an hour today, and was pleased with their willingness to listen and consider my concerns. I’m anxious to spill the details of our conversation, but for the sake of time I’ll have to do that in another post.

The plan is to get every home, school, business, etc. connected to the Smart Grid over the next few years. If you don’t already have a Smart Meter, be assured, it’s coming. Too many people know nothing about these, and too many people don’t care. I urge you to get involved with the world around you. Inform yourself and then take the appropriate actions.

Until next time, I’ll leave you with some more food for thought…

**UPDATE (2/14/13):

It has been a year since I had a meeting with executives from my electric company, and I’ve finally heard back from them with a decision on whether or not they will allow their customers an opt-out option.

But first, I promised to share some of the details of our conversation that day, and I never did fill you in. So, I’ll do some catching up now.

During our meeting, I brought up each of the concerns I outlined in my letter above. Both men were very respectful and upfront, and answered each of my questions thoroughly.  Here are the basics of what they said…

With regards to Meter Readers losing their jobs, they said that the people who held those positions were contractors, not employees of the co-op, and that they had been given notice of the need for their services to be terminated. However, some of these contractors would still be used in case of power outages and repairs, as needed.

When I expressed my concerns about cyber security risks, the Manager of Engineering & Operations bluntly admitted that the Smart Meter data would be “as safe as anything else on the web”. He compared it to the safety of banking online. The problem I have with that is that with online banking, if my account is hacked and money is stolen, the bank has fraud protection in place to reimburse me. With Smart Meters, if my account is hacked and my meter readings are tampered with, or my personal information or household activities are recorded, what safety measures are in place to protect me from being violated? None. There is no protection for the consumer.

When I brought up the possible violation of my Fourth Amendment rights, they both somewhat joked and promised that they weren’t interested in spying on me. I told them it wasn’t them I was worried about. Unfortunately, they refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of my concern here.

Next, I asked them about the possibility of the Smart Meters leading to increased billing charges. They told me that they do not have any plans, currently, to increase prices. However, there may be a time down the road when they begin charging on a tiered scale, by peak hours. Using the meters, they would be able to determine when electricity was used, and will charge different rates accordingly. They shared that the price of electricity is only going up, and at a rapid pace with all of the state and federal regulations they are facing.

The last thing we discussed was the “foot in the door”, so to speak. I told them that I couldn’t help but wonder where this technology would lead, and at what point would I lose the ability to regulate my own home’s energy consumption. I was surprised when the Executive Vice President acknowledged my concerns, and answered with, “When that happens, it will be because it is out of our control”. A frightening possibility.

Of course, we talked about a lot of stuff. And the engineer talked a whole lot of technical stuff that frankly was a bit too technical for me, and I tried in earnest not to let my eyes gloss over while he spoke (nodding and focusing intently on his words), but I appreciated that he felt I was intelligent enough to understand what he was saying.

At three different points in the conversation, the Vice President said to me, “Now Ms. ____, I would really love it if I got a phone call from you in a few days, and you said to me, “Greg, I’ve thought about this and I’m okay with you putting that meter on my house.”” I had to laugh a little. Finally, toward the end of our conversation, he said it one more time, “Now Ms.____, do you think this is something you can see yourself being okay with?” I looked him straight in the eyes and said, “Greg, I’ve thought a lot about these Smart Meters. I’ve done a lot of studying and researching before coming in here today. And I’ve asked myself, Is this important enough to fight for? And you know what? It is. It is important enough, and I’m not going to change my mind.”

With that he smiled, and he glanced at the engineer as he continued, “Well, we’ve talked it over and we would like to bring the decision before the Board of Directors to let them decide whether or not to allow our members an opt-out option.” That was great news, though I knew there was a good chance they would still say no. As the meeting drew to a close, I thanked them for hearing me, and for considering my proposal. We stood up, and as I shook the Vice President’s hand I said, “I look forward to hearing your decision.” I also followed up with an email at a later date, asking if the minutes from the meeting would be available (I figured this would hold them accountable in the way they presented the opt-out option proposal).

As of last week, I still had not heard an answer. So I sent an email to Greg asking him if they had come to a decision yet. I knew they had planned on having 100% of their service area installed with the new meters by the end of Dec. 2012, so I inquired as to where they were in the installation process. I also included a link to an article about two women getting arrested for refusing the Smart Meter on their homes, and I told him I couldn’t help but wonder if that would be me in the near future (which was my way of letting them know I still meant business).

His response came with GREAT news. Here is an excerpt from that email…

Your substation is one of the 5 that we have left to install reading hardware in and to bring online for communicating with meters.  Weather allowing, we’ll have it operational by the end of February.

We discussed before that we felt it best to allow our Board of Directors to address the opt-out question.  They have since discussed the issue and, at their November 2012 meeting, decided to allow members to opt out of remotely read meters if they so choose.  The policy they adopted allows the cooperative to charge a monthly service fee for any meters that have to be manually read, with the fee to be set by management.

The monthly service fee to manually read a meter will initially be $25 – this could change later if we determine that it we have either overestimated or underestimated the cost to do this.  We initially set the fee at this level because it is the same as the ‘trip charge’ that we apply whenever we send someone to collect an unpaid bill or disconnect a customer for non-payment – the same contract employee who performs those tasks will be performing any manual meter reads and the time and mileage charges to us should be comparable.

During a previous discussion, I had agreed that a modest fee to offset the cost of having a meter reader come out to our home would be acceptable. I am very pleased at the decision to allow me to keep my meter, and don’t mind paying a service fee in exchange for peace of mind, security, and giving a contractor a job.

I share all of this to encourage you to inform yourself of the dangers of these meters, and to take action. Particularly if the meters your power company will be using transmit wirelessly. You will have to call and speak to a knowledgeable employee to find this information out. I would also suggest that you find out the name of the manufacturer of your meter, and the model number so that you can research its particular capabilities. And if you don’t like what you learn, set up a meeting with those in charge and have a face-to-face discussion about the possibility of them offering opt-out option.

If you don’t have a meter yet, do this NOW. It’ll be much easier to fight before the meter is installed on your home.

If you do already have the meter (and chances are good you do, because they are working quickly and quietly), you may have to pay to get your old meter back, if they will even allow that option. Research the risks associated with your particular meter, and weigh the benefits of having it removed vs. leaving it. If your electric company will not even consider an opt-out option, the next step would be to begin a campaign enlightening your neighbors and collecting signatures on a petition to reconsider.

Please, take a little time to be pro-active for your family’s sake.

Be informed. Get involved. And don’t just let things happen.