The Vermont Public Service Department, which represents the public interest in utility cases before the Vermont Public Service Board, federal regulatory agencies and state and federal courts, is soliciting proposals for services, including expert witness services, for the preparation of a report on health effects related to the radio frequency radiation of smart meters. The winning consultant will prepare a report that shall include:

  • An update of the Health Department’s 2012 report entitled “Radio Frequency Radiation and Health: Smart Meters” including a literature review
  • Recommendations relating to evidence-based surveillance on the potential health effects of wireless smart meters
  • Results from the previously-completed smart meter RF measurement report.

Responses to the RFP are due on Friday, January 18, 2013, by 4:00 p.m. in hard copy and in electronic format.

After careful review of the available literature and studies, the Staff of the Michigan Public Service Commission believes that the health risk from the installation and operation of metering systems using radio transmitters is insignificant and the appropriate federal health and safety regulations provide assurance that smart meters represent a safe technology. The report discusses the fact that there are multiple sources of RF exposure in our everyday environment, including cellular phones, wireless devices – such as laptops and routers – microwave ovens, baby monitors, garage door openers, walkie talkies, computer monitors, fluorescent lighting, and electrical wires within the home, and that smart meters are a small contributor to the total environmental RF emissions to which the general public is exposed. Eliminating smart meters would result in a minimal reduction of total emissions.

The Staff also recommends regulators include the following fundamental concepts when addressing a smart grid privacy policy:

  • Definitions of various types of data collected (usage/billing, aggregate, customer identifiable)
  • Permitted usage of data types by utility (sales, contractor work, emergency)
  • Customer consent and third-party disclosure rules (notice, time frame, records)
  • Availability of usage information to customer (web portal, direct mail, email)
  • Privacy breach requirements (notification to customer/commission)

The report addresses additional safety concerns unrelated to RF emissions such as overheating of meters and cyber security. With links to excellent resources, it is a must read for utilities and regulators.

The Maine Public Utility Commission shocked the industry when it was one of the first states to open an opt-out investigation and subsequently order a smart meter opt-out. Despite taking these steps that many in the utility industry disagree with, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court recently told the MPUC it failed to adequately address the health and safety concerns raised regarding smart meters. This stems from an appeal taken by a customer of Central Maine Power over a dismissed complaint regarding the Commission’s opt-out order.

The complaint by 19 CMP customers requested a new investigation due to “new and important evidence specifically addressing non-ionizing radiation of the type emitted by smart meters.” The complaint states there was a May 31, 2011 press release from the World Health Organization that classified RF radiation as possibly carcinogenic to humans. The Appellate Court held the Commission erred in dismissing the complaint because it did not adequately address the health and safety concerns. The MPUC concluded the appropriate entity to consider potential RF health impacts is the FCC in consultation with the Food and Drug Administration. In spite of conducting an investigation, the Commission made no determination on the merits of health, safety, privacy or security concerns regarding wireless smart meters. Without considering the health and safety issues, the Court concluded the Commission could not find the opt-out fee was not reasonable.

Despite the yo-yo effect, this decision will be beneficial to utilities in the long run. It will finally force the industry to engage in independent research to address the health concerns. Then maybe we can all live smart.

There are bold and extremely risk-averse criminals on the loose in Butte, MT. A spokesperson for NorthWestern Energy confirmed the utility was recently the victim of LIVE power line thefts on two separate occasions! Yes, you read that correctly. Someone, unable to comprehend the hazards of cutting live wires, stole as much as 10 spans of electric lines while it was in service, leaving customers in the dark. And if the first death-defying feat was not enough, the thieves surfaced a week later in another community to steal more wire while it was providing electric service to customers in the Timber Butte neighborhood. I am going to resist any talk of stunt men and reality shows and simply say this gives new meaning to theft of service!

Joking aside, the thieves have taken over 400 pounds of copper filled wire leaving customers without power for several hours. Police are seeking help from the public in identifying the people involved. Anyone with information is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 406-782-7336. Callers may remain anonymous and could be eligible for a cash reward. Information may also be reported to Butte police Sgt. George Holland at 406-497-1167 or Butte Police Capt. Doug Conway at 406- 497-1123. 

While I regularly discuss smart grid legal issues, I never thought I would be giving a Crime Stoppers’ report. So how is this smart grid related? Let’s take a look at the definition of smart grid taken from NorthWestern Energy’s website:

“What is Smart Grid?
Smart Grid is an advanced, telecommunication/electric grid with sensors and smart devices linking all aspects of the current grid, from generator to consumer, and delivering enhanced operational capabilities that:

  • Provide CONSUMERS with the information and tools necessary to be responsive to electricity grid conditions, including price and reliability, through the use of electric devices and new services.
  • Ensure EFFICIENT use of the electric grid optimizing current assets while integrating emerging technologies such as renewable and storage devices.
  • Enhance RELIABILITY by protecting the grid from cyber attacks and other disruptions and also by increasing power quality and promoting early detection and self correcting of the grid.” (Emphasis mine.)

This crime highlights the need for smart grid development. An advanced grid with sensors and distribution automation could alert the utility that something is wrong, or in this case missing, before the thieves get to the scrap metal yard. Fortunately, NorthWestern Energy is currently a part of the Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project whose participants are part of a mix of public and private entities that will fund half of the $178 million project price tag. Specifically, NorthWestern Energy will invest $2.1 million to upgrade portions of its electric distribution system with smart grid technology. Thieves beware…the smart grid is coming.

Recently, two studies were released on the effects of radio frequency (RF) exposure of wireless smart meters on humans. The California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) issued a report in January concluding the RF exposure from smart meters fell far below the FCC limit. A study by Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) released last month reported similar conclusions.

According to the EPRI study, the RF exposure from smart meters would be less than from TVs or radios and far less than from cell phones or microwaves. 

The CCST study concludes that even if a meter malfunctioned and transmitted without stopping and the person was sitting next to the meter 24 hours a day – an impossible, worst-case scenario – the exposure level would be 60% of the FCC limit, or 1.2% of the exposure level at which harmful thermal effects were observed.

Hopefully these reports will quell concerns about the safety of wireless smart meters. I suspect they will satisfy most people, but not all. Some believe the FCC limit is inadequate. Their main concern is about the potential non-thermal effects of not just wireless smart meters but any device that uses radio-waves or microwaves, such as TVs, radios, microwaves, cell phones and internet routers. The claim is that even at low levels of RF exposure, there may be harmful effects – other than from heating tissues – if exposed over a long period. Therefore, they claim the FCC limit is inadequate.

The CCST and EPRI reports acknowledge that concerns exist among some in the public regarding non-thermal, harmful effects (such as headaches, irritability, cancer, etc.) of wireless devices. However, there simply is no reliable scientific evidence to show causation and there is no consensus in the scientific community that RF exposure causes non-thermal related harms. The FCC must base its regulations on reliable scientific evidence and cannot revise its RF exposure standard based on speculative fear.

This illustrates a vicious circle where fear trumps logic. If some simply believe their fears to be correct, even in the light of contrary evidence, then science may not convince them otherwise. One can only hope that an increasing use of smart meters by others will begin to allay their concerns. In the meantime, these reports will give the public more confidence as they take a direct role in the building of a smarter electricity infrastructure.

On January 5, 2011, the EMF Safety Network filed an application requesting the Public Utilities Commission of California reconsider its decision to not investigate health-related issues raised by the EMF Safety Network and others opposed to the installation of smart meters. The application states the Commission has an obligation to ensure safe delivery of gas and electric service and has committed legal error by neglecting and deferring its utility regulation duties to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and should do the following:

  • Respond to requests for a smart meter moratorium submitted by thousands of people, including local jurisdictions
  • Order an immediate moratorium on the deployment of smart meters;
  • Hold public evidentiary hearings; and
  • Offer shielded wire alternatives or maintain existing electromechanical meter.

No decision on the application has been made yet. For more information on this case see my blog post of December 21, 2010.

Despite having approved Central Maine Power’s (CMP’s) Automated Metering Infrastructure (AMI) plan in February 2010 as a program designed to “improve customer service, enhance storm restoration efforts, reduce utility operational costs, save ratepayer and utility costs, and ultimately provide customers with necessary tools to use electricity more efficiently,” on January 4, 2011, the Maine PUC voted unanimously to open an investigation at the request of complainants citing health concerns. (Docket Numbers 2010-345, and 2010-389). The Commission states the investigation will examine:

  • the possibility of local opt-outs to the program already being implemented and installed by CMP;
  • the possible effect of such an opt-out on the original federal Department of Energy (DOE) grant which helped fund approximately half the cost of the program;
  • the availability of hard-wire alternatives from CMP;
  • cost implications of any alternatives; and
  • what impact the alternatives would have on the smart grid program’s goals. 

Attorney Beth George of Scarborough, MI, is just one of several CMP customers requesting an investigation. Her letter to the Commission expressed concern about a few of her neighbors having “some type of heart failure” within weeks of each other. Additionally, the Scarborough Town Council passed a resolution requesting CMP to delay the installation of the “so called smart meters.” The Council is asking the Commission to give customers the ability to opt out of having the wireless smart meters installed. Several state representatives weighed in requesting an investigation as well.

I wonder if any of the complainants have cell phones, use Wi-Fi for their home internet connections or use cordless phones? Will CMP lower its carbon footprint by sending a meter reader to read three meters on Cleveland Circle and two meters on Hampton Circle? Obviously efficiencies will be lost. And what about the software and other technology issues? Will CMP have to maintain dual billing systems? There is a strong possibility these options will take an expensive plan and make it cost prohibitive.

Pacific Gas & Electric (“PG&E”) and the EMF Safety Network (“Network”) battled over the summer regarding the safety of smart meters.  In early spring, Network submitted an Application to the California Public Utility Commission (“CPUC”) requesting the Commission modify its previous orders approving PG&E’s smart meter program alleging health related concerns. EMF Safety Network is self-described in the application as “a coalition of business and property owners, concerned citizens and PG&E ratepayers in northern California who address health, environmental, and safety impacts associated with electromagnetic fields (EMF) and radiofrequency radiation (RF) technologies.” Network’s mission is public education, policy development, and community advocacy to limit further widespread, chronic, involuntary EMF and RF exposures. Network requested the following modifications:

  • re-open Commission review of PG&E’s Smart Meter program
  • require PG&E to submit an independently prepared RF Emissions study
  • schedule evidentiary hearings on RF health, environmental, and safety impacts
  • review actual Smart Meter program performance
  • require PG&E to amend its tariff to afford customers the right to opt out of the smart meter program; and
  • impose an immediate moratorium on PG&E installation of new Smart Meters pending completion of the requested study, evidentiary hearings and the proposed Commission review.

PG&E filed a Protest of Network’s Application as well as a Motion to Dismiss. In the motion, PG&E argued that the Commission should dismiss Network’s Application on the grounds that the field of RF emissions is pre-empted by federal law, that the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) is the body responsible for RF regulation, that all meters with smart meter technology have been licensed or certified by the FCC and that the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution precludes the CPUC from regulating RF emissions.

A flurry of protests, replies and comments ensued during the summer of Smart Grid Smackdown, including comments to the Proposed Decision (“PD”) granting PG&E’s motion to dismiss. The Division of Ratepayer Advocates (“DRA”) argued in its comments that the CPUC is responsible to ensure that smart meters do not endanger public health and “Unless the public’s concerns can be put to rest, there is a very great risk that PG&E’s Smart Meter deployment will turn out to be a $2.2 billion mistake that ratepayers can ill afford.”

On December 2, 2010, the CPUC, paved the way for PG&E’s continued deployment of smart meters by adopting the PD and granting PG&E’s motion to dismiss. Given the emotional protest involved, I have a feeling the case and the issues raised will not end with the CPUC’s decision.  

Lisa Romani contributed to this post.