[11/12/16] As taxpayers, utilities, and rate payers continue to pump billions into modernization of the electric power grid, controversy rages over the evolving “smart” technology that makes it possible. While proponents praise it as ushering in efficient grid management and cybersecurity, others warn that the “smart grid” is nothing less than a tool of the surveillance state that government uses to destroy liberty and privacy.
In the cross hairs of an attack are smart meters, digital devices that replace traditional automated utility meters at individual homes and businesses. Like their conventional cousins, smart meters measure electric power usage, and some record gas and/or water use, too. Utilities prefer them because they provide two-way communication between the meter and main recording station. They can be read frequently, improving accuracy in recording electric power use, and they are read remotely, without utilities sending a person to document each measuring device in the network. The National Association for Amateur Radio states that smart meters also reduce costs by alerting customers to ways they can conserve energy and by allowing utilities to pinpoint times of peak demand and resolve outages and service problems more rapidly.
But the other side of the coin, opponents say, is that government can spy on and ration your energy use by means of these digital meters. During the 2015 California drought, for example, bureaucrats used them “to catch citizens consuming more than their government-approved water rations,” as Alex Newman reported for The New American. In what amounted to warrantless search and collection of data, Long Beach Water Department General Manager Kevin Wattier bragged, “We are using it specifically for an enforcement tool to go after those customers who we’ve gotten lots of complaints about,” and to fine them for using more than their “fair share” of water.
In 2012, the Congressional Research Service warned about the criminal potential afforded by such detailed, up-to-the-minute recording. “By observing when occupants use the most electricity, it may be possible to discern their daily schedules,” opening the door for hackers to plan robberies or worse. Newman also related that the European Data Protection Supervisor, a European Union government agency, warned that smart meters allow “massive collection of personal information … unprecedented in the energy sector.”
Also sparking debate is that smart meters have proven to be dangerous fire hazards; due to a common hardware malfunction, the unstable devices easily explode and send homes up in flames. Newman recounted that the problem reached such a pitch in one Canadian province that authorities swapped out more than 100,000 smart meters with traditional units. Oregon officials replaced 70,000 digital meters in 2014 for the same reason. Randy Bays, president of leading smart meter manufacturer Sensus, made the incriminating and disturbing admission: “Our experience has shown that these issues are systemic in the industry.”
Yet another argument against the controversial monitoring instruments is the allegation that radiation emitted in their transmissions causes adverse health effects in humans. For example, the website for the 2013 documentary “Take Back Your Power” states that smart meters “emit between 5,000 and 190,000 pulses per day.” No question that’s a lot of radiation, right? Not really. According to the New England electric company NationalGrid, “a typical data-transmitting pulse would be 6 milliseconds long.” Five thousand pulses equates to 30 seconds per day.
That may be slight, but what about 190,000 pulses? The study cited by TakeBackYourPower.net actually only found “one meter that sent out more than 190,000 signals in one day.” Even in that case, the meter transmitted for less than 20 minutes. But the average device sent fewer than 10,000 pulses daily. The report concluded, “Add them together, and the meter’s total transmission time equals a little more than 45 seconds per day.”
The question remains: Is that enough radiation to cause disease? Or does this smart-meter-contagion argument amount to nothing more than fearmongering by those who wish to demonize smart meters at all costs, and who are taking advantage of general public ignorance of radiation? If the latter case is true, the argument certainly undermines the credibility of those with real concerns about the menacing potential of smart meters as tools that turn Big Brother into Peeping Tom. In order to answer these questions, we need to understand the radiation that smart meters emit. So we’ll start with a brief review of the electromagnetic spectrum.
All the Energy in the Universe
NASA describes the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum as the span of all known types of EM radiation, arranged according to wavelength and frequency. Lower frequencies and longer wavelengths occupy the left side and transition to higher frequencies and shorter wavelengths toward the right. EM radiation moves at the speed of light and emanates from a variety of natural and man-made sources, including the sun, the Earth, and your own body. Household appliances such as your television and microwave also emit EM energy in varying forms.
Visible light is the most familiar, because it is the only type we can detect without the aid of measuring instruments. But visible light is an extremely narrow portion of the entire spectrum, slightly to the right of center. Coupled with ultraviolet radiation, it effectively marks the dividing line between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation.
Ionizing radiation contains enough energy to tear electrons away from an atom, converting it into ions with a positive or negative electric charge. This is commonly known as radioactivity, which can cause cancer in high doses because it can damage DNA. X-rays and gamma rays are well-known forms of ionizing energy.
Non-ionizing radiation does not carry enough energy to ionize atoms, meaning it is incapable of causing DNA damage. But its effects are observed elsewhere. It makes it possible for you to microwave your food, for your radio to receive a signal, and for your lights to come on when you flip a switch. Without non-ionizing radiation, there would be no such thing as laser cataract surgery, cellular phones, or sunlight.