Smart Meters Electrify Debate About Privacy, Security and Health

Jun 12, 2012

Electric companies are installing smart meters across the state. The change has brought the national debate on smart meter technology to Florida. 

Florida Power and Light (FPL) is switching 4.5 million electric meters across the state to smart meters. Smart meters read energy digitally and send hourly electrical usage from customers' homes to the utility. Information travels through a neighborhood system of two-way radio transmitters to an access point mounted on a power pole.

The smart meter installation only takes a couple of minutes. Philip Kibbe of Punta Gorda says he was surprised by how quickly his meter was switched.

"I was without electricity for maybe two minutes," says Kibbe. "And the gentleman that came out and did the transfer was very courteous. He moved everything away to get to the meter. He moved everything back. I was just impressed." 

The smart grid system lets the electric company monitor the flow of electricity throughout neighborhoods in real time. The company is alerted to power outages and can respond without anyone having to call in. Other power companies have also made this switch. Progress Energy finished years ago and Lee County Electric Cooperative (LCEC) has been using a smart grid for more than a decade.

The large-scale switch to smart meters and smart grid technology was initiated as part of President George W. Bush's Energy Independence and Security Actof 2007 and was funded by President Obama's Economic Stimulus Act of 2008.

LCEC's Public Relations Manager Karen Ryan says there are tangible benefits including providing customers real-time information about their energy usage and allowing them to adjust it accordingly. And she says there are other benefits as well.

"It's a cost savings", says Ryan. "We now can read meters in one day whereas before, when you physically had to go to the location, it was time consuming. Now it's much more accurate, too. We have 99.9% accuracy with our automated system because you take that human error factor out of the equation."

Ryan says it has helped LCEC provide more reliable service.

But while the smart meters used by LCEC operate over the existing power grid, FPL's meters operate using radio frequencies. FPL spokesman Greg Brostowicz says the decision to use radio frequency (RF) instead of hardwiring comes down to cost.

"The radio frequency allows us to not have to put more infrastructure in," says Brostowicz. "Really, we're about keeping costs low for customers and if we had to do hardwires in, it would cost more money and then we'd have to charge more."

Some customers have said they are not happy about the change. They've voiced concern about potential privacy, security and health risks caused by the RF signals.

Both FPL and LCEC say they take customer privacy seriously. Brostowicz says FPL's third-party privacy policies will not change because of the smart meters. He says no one will get access to information about who uses electricity or when someone stops using it, such as when a customer might be on vacation.

"We don't take customer privacy lightly or safety lightly," says Brostowicz. "We're very focused on it and we feel very comfortable that this is a product and a solution that is in the customer's best interest."

As for security, neither company's meters store or transmit customer information, only the kilowatt hours used.

But determining whether or not smart meters pose a health risk is not as simple. Wherever smart meters are installed people claim they have effects. They range the gamut from headaches to heart palpitations.

Monique Thomas recently moved from Pinellas County to Longboat Key to escape what she says were the effects of Progress Energy's smart meters. She says she began feeling sick three days after moving into a new apartment.

"I had 17 meters underneath my bedroom window and just beyond my apartment and I started looking into what these meters actually were", says Thomas. "They were digital, but they did not have the words smart meter on them. I didn't think anything of it until I started getting sick."

Longboat Key is currently free of smart meters, but FPL plans to begin installing them in the Sarasota area in the fall.

As more people question the safety of the radio frequency radiation emitted by smart meters, scientists are working to find the answers.

Dr. Henry Lai is a Research Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. His research focuses primarily on the biological effects of radiation from radio frequency and electromagnetic fields. Lai says while more research needs to be conducted, there may be cause for concern about potential health risks. He says long-term exposure to smart meters has not been well studied.

"Most of the studies in this area are on short-term exposure", says Lai. "For example, you expose an animal or some cells for several hours. But in the case of the smart meter exposure, a person is exposed to the radiation for hours and years. So, what are the possible effects of long-term, repeated exposure? We don't know." 

Lai says DNA damage has been observed in animal studies using short-term exposure to radio frequencies. He says the intermittent nature of smart meters could potentially be worse than a steady signal.

"Radiation from the smart meter is intermittent", says Lai. "There's some studies that show that on and off type of radiation is more harmful than continuous exposure or continuous emission."

But FPL's Brostowicz says his company has the customer's best interest in mind.

"A lot of times people get nervous with change," says Brostowicz. "Any change. And it's great that people are doing studies and making sure things are safe, but I feel very, very comfortable that as more information comes out and more people are using this that there will be a greater sense of comfort."

FPL's smart meters are in compliance with current FCC regulations which govern radio frequency transmission. FPL is not offering an option to opt out of the meter upgrade. Customers can contact the company if they have any concerns.