Coming Study Is Hoped to Advance Health Discussion on Smart Meters

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Warren’s Washington Internet Daily

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — A study due out in a few months may move the needle in the debate over health effects of the smart grid, said an executive of a nonprofit participant. The report, due out in the late summer or early fall, will go beyond dealing with concerns about radio frequency radiation from smart meters, said Chris Thomas, policy director of the Illinois Citizens Utility Board. He said it will take into account risks of exposure, particularly among low-income residents, to extreme weather from automated cutoffs enabled by the smart grid.
“We just got access to a lot of the data we needed, so it’s still an ongoing project,” Thomas said late Monday at the ConnectivityWeek conference. He declined to preview results, but expressed hope that the study will improve communication to help everyone benefit from the smart grid. The Illinois consumer group is doing the work with the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership and the Energy Programs Consortium, Thomas said. The consortium includes the National Association of State Community Services Programs, the National Association of State Energy Officials, the National Association of State Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. The Pew Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are paying for the project, Thomas said.

Others on the same panel expressed frustration that radiation worries about smart meters persist, despite what they called the absence of scientific support. “There hasn’t been any evidence that can be documented and reproduced” that some people are sensitive to exposure, said Chris King, eMeter chief strategy officer. Consumers “are frankly being misled by these opponents, and there’s fear,” he said.

Speakers acknowledged that utilities, state regulators and other smart grid boosters have handled health worries poorly. Many of the worries spread through social media online, King said. Utilities and other smart-grid supporters “aren’t very good” at using those forums, he said. They’re comfortable with using “very tightly controlled message channels” and that’s not going to work here, King said. “You need to first listen to the communities you serve, and you need to meet them where they are,” said Ryan Young, a Greenlining Institute legal fellow.

Smart-meter efforts have had a “trust us” message, and health questions loom larger than they would if consumers saw the technology as offering them benefits, Thomas said. But supporters must be “very careful” in pitching the upside, King said. “You’re not going to save a ton of money” as a consumer, he said. But the industry can point to consumer benefits as long as it acknowledges that it stands to gain financially, King said.

“All the benefits are operational,” said Chris Villareal, a regulatory analyst with California’s Public Utility Commission. “How do you explain that to customers?” But he suggested that the challenge runs much deeper than messaging strategies. “There is a huge trust issue,” Villareal said. People widely believe that “the utility is not doing anything for them, the commission is not doing anything for them.”

The commission has proposed that Pacific Gas & Electric let customers opt out of smart meters, and the Utility Consumers’ Action Network has asked the PUC to order a similar choice for San Diego Gas & Electric customers, Villareal said. “I don’t expect an order will come out in the next couple of months,” because there are many questions about handling the costs, he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to set our money on fire” by pulling out installed smart meters, King said. — Louis Trager