It all seems pretty straightforward: Seattle City Light is planning an upgrade of the city's electric meters, those little gray boxes on the sides of buildings that measure your electricity consumption. It's exciting, says the utility, because new, more advanced meters will give more accurate readings, increase the speed with which the utility responds to outages, and maybe even give customers the ability to monitor their power usage in real time, so consumers can more closely manage their own energy conservation in greeny-green Seattle.
The advanced meters will also transmit data to the power utility wirelessly, instead of requiring workers to drive around in trucks and tromp through your backyard to read your meter. Utilities across the globe have begun installing these advanced meters, or "smart meters," in recent years, from British Columbia to Australia to California.
Yet everywhere smart meters go, including Seattle, it seems they meet with concerted—and, sorry to be rude, but often totally bonkers—opposition.
"This may be the most important decision you ever make," a woman pleaded in the Seattle City Council chambers, at a recent meeting where the council was discussing City Light's strategic plan for the next few years. That strategic plan includes the beginning stages of the eventual rollout of these smart meters, though actual installations are still a long ways off. A similar cast of characters has been showing up to a lot of council meetings this summer. One man testified that increased radiation from cell phones and wi-fi is the root cause of a host of mysterious symptoms like headaches, anxiety, and depression. People talk about being "very sensitive to electromagnetic fields" and how we're "turning our cities and biosphere into a microwave oven" with all this new technology. Others claim to feel wi-fi and cell-phone signals on their skin. Still others are concerned that the government is trying to come inside their homes and monitor their every move based on how much electricity they use. Lots of people stepped up to the microphone carrying packets of annotated, binder-clipped information that they submitted to the council as evidence, instructing council members to "please refer to the graph in attachment B1 of the provided document," or to please watch this brilliant documentary on the dangers of smart meters.
On YouTube, in other regions that have already gotten smart meters installed, it gets wackier.
Like, did you know you can make a tinfoil hat for your electric meter? Well, you can and you should, according to various YouTubers. One guy sells a mesh cage that blocks radiation and fits over utility meters; it's $129.95. Other people protect themselves DIY-style—one video advises that you can build your own portable smart-meter shield out of reflective insulation and duct tape, so you can carry it with you "if you have to be in an environment with a smart meter." A California woman thinks her smart meter killed the bees in her yard and is making nearby bats fly in unusual patterns; she duct-tapes a foil turkey pan over the meter. "What's it doing to my brain?" she asks the camera. Lots of videos demonstrate the effectiveness of their smart-meter-blocking by measuring the smart meter with their own radio-frequency meter, before and after tinfoil.
And of course, there are the people who sleep inside giant wire-mesh cages, known as Faraday cages, that block out radio frequencies and cell-phone signals.
Which all serves to paint a picture of the anti-smart-meter crowd as a bunch of crazy, literal-tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists, and makes you think there probably aren't any real problems with smart meters, right?
Well, that's not exactly true, either.
"Smart meters emit RF waves, which are a type of electromagnetic radiation, so there is the potential for them to cause harm," reads the American Cancer Society's page on smart meters. "The actual risk of harm, if it exists, is likely to be extremely low, for a number of reasons," the society adds.
Yeah, "radiation" is a scary word.
But: All sorts of things emit radiation, and the radiation emitted by smart meters is similar to that of cell phones, cordless phones, and wi-fi routers. This new City Light plan seems to be the equivalent of the city taping a cell phone to the side of your house or apartment building. Since the jury's still out on whether cell phones cause increased cancer risk, we don't actually have a solid answer on what that means.
"You make decisions based on the best available information at the time," says City Light spokesman Scott Thomsen. "We have not seen any reputable scientific study that indicates any health hazard risks associated with advanced meters."
And that's the way we have to make decisions about a lot of new technology. By the time you could do a long-term study on its effects, even newer technology has emerged and taken over. Welcome to modern life, y'all. Unless you want to go completely off the grid—in which case you probably shouldn't be living in the middle of a city—there are potential risks involved with all sorts of things that also have clear benefits.
So why are we talking about installing these in the first place? There are a handful of good reasons.
Like the fact that a lot of analog meters can't be replaced when they wear down because they're not being manufactured anymore. And the fact that higher-tech smart meters can better pinpoint power outages by sending an emergency ping to City Light as they shut down. The utility can also more quickly reconnect consumers whose power has been shut off for billing reasons. And because they allow the utility to check your electricity usage and bill you more efficiently, they almost eliminate the practice of estimating your bill because some worker in a truck couldn't get to your meter because the gate was locked, there was a big dog in the yard, or your landlord locked the utility cabinet. (If those estimates are off by too much, you can suddenly face a giant bill.)
More importantly, smart meters could potentially offer consumers real-time data about their own power usage via an online dashboard, helping you minutely regulate your own energy consumption, whether it's to save the planet or just keep your power bill low. Imagine: You see your power usage is really high when you're not even home and figure out you have some energy-sucking appliance you can turn off. Or, you easily learn just how much energy that basement lightbulb you keep leaving on costs you.
And it's that minute data that holds some privacy concerns. Could your smart meter get hacked? Can the government now tell when you're home (or awake, or watching a movie) by how much power you're using? Um, yeah, probably. Those appear to be totally valid concerns—although, at least in theory, a lot of this same information can already be observed by government employees paid to tromp through yards on the way to reading old-school electricity meters.
Also, the new privacy concerns can be addressed with smart policy on data and privacy, an increasingly important issue that the city is looking to address. Just because new tech can be abused doesn't mean it should be automatically tossed in the garbage—the fact that some jerk can e-mail your grandma and get her bank account number doesn't mean the internet itself is evil, right? But we do have to tread carefully and hold the city accountable for privacy and health concerns.
The city council has plans for more careful discussion on the issue. This September, they'll receive further reports from City Light on smart meters' impacts and hold public meetings (sure to be entertaining viewing). The plan for smart meters is moving forward—that basic decision has been made with some finality—but there's still a lot of room for what the eventual rollout looks like.
And for the still-fearful: City Light not only has committed to having an opt-out policy, but says specifically that "we will not make that policy so onerous as to make it untenable," according to Thomsen, the spokesman. "If someone absolutely does not want to have one, they will have the opportunity to opt out."
I did ask Thomsen one last important question. "How do smart meters control your mind?"
His reply, after a beat and a laugh: "They don't." Suuuuure, man.