Technically Speaking

news_smart_meterFour SmartMeter questions answered

Since their mass installation across California, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E)’s SmartMeters have received much attention from media and a skeptical public. Ten million SmartMeters are slated for installment by the end of 2011. Until recently, the roll out of these new wireless utility meters left many technical questions about their wireless technology unanswered.

At a California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) meeting on Sept. 14, entitled “SmartMeter Opt-Out Workshop,” questions about the wireless meters were raised in front of a CPUC judge. On Oct.18, the CPUC ruled that PG&E—along with a list of other relevant utilities companies—must release a public “clarification” with answers to CPUC’s specific technological questions about SmartMeters.



A series of documents mandated by the CPUC, entitled “Before the Public Utilities Commission of the State of California,” break down the inner workings of the wireless meters by answering specific, in-depth questions about the meters. They were submitted and released by the various California utilities, including PG&E, on Nov. 1.

Below, we take a look at four important questions about SmartMeters and the available explanations.

1. Do SmartMeters save energy?

Because PG&E’s marketing campaign paints SmartMeters “green,” it is a common misconception that SmartMeters inherently save energy. Greg Snapper, media spokesperson for PG&E, confirms that the meters are not hooked up to the power grid in a way that has a direct technical impact on energy consumption.

Dr. Karl Maret, of Aptos, received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, masters in biomedical engineering and a medical degree, with four years’ post-doctorate work in physiology.

“[Utilities] are considering that they need to monitor more closely, on a more frequent basis, the readings of power usage, so they can essentially steer the power utilities customers into using it when they want them to use it,” he says, adding that this way, the utilities companies do not have to build more capacity for power storage.

news_smart_meter2According to Snapper and the PG&E website, the SmartMeter connects each home in a two-way communication with the electric grid in order to help manage the demand on the grid, and increase service and reliability.

“This also helps you make more informed choices about your energy consumption and have greater control of your monthly costs,” reads the website.

There are indications on the website of future plans to integrate a separate “SmartGrid” program, which would involve power generation, but SmartMeters are a separate program.

Snapper says that the wireless meters can be used as a tool to help consumers manage their energy use by providing up to date information on individual gas and electric consumption, thus encouraging them to supervise their energy use and reduce their energy bills and carbon emissions.

Jeff Nordahl, a local computer programmer who has become active in SmartMeter protests because of health and safety concerns, says the SmartMeter is no more than “a wireless billing network.”

He believes that PG&E and its investors exaggerate the wireless billing network’s “green” slant.

“They tried to spin it into this green thing, and it sold everyone on this concept,” says Nordahl, pointing out a low-tech alternative for those interested in watching their daily power consumption: go out and look at your analog meter reading every day.

2. What is the ‘mesh network’?

PG&E’s mandated CPUC clarification document shows that individual SmartMeters are part of a network that cannot sustain itself without a complete grid of meters, which continuously interact. This is called the “mesh network.”

Maret says the utilities needed a way to send signals to central effecting points, while keeping the power levels low for each house. Thus, instead of designing the SmartMeters to send out a burst of power from time to time, they set up the meters as both receivers and transmitters of data, which makes the usage and radio frequency emission much more frequent.

Beginning at single houses and buildings, the SmartMeters’ individual radios transmit billing information, but instead of sending this information directly to the power supply company, meters relay information back and forth, through one another. One house in the grid is virtually speaking to the next, that house is speaking back, and so on.

“The [SmartMeter] is essentially putting a blanket, or a mesh, radiofrequency radiation over the area that wasn’t there before,” says Maret.

Upon relaying information through one another, the meters then transfer the data they’ve collected via the mesh network to a collection unit. These are silver boxes with long antennae that are mounted to utility poles spaced throughout a given neighborhood or industrial district.

According to Page 12 of PG&E’s clarification document, these collection units are placed “at 25 feet or higher above the ground,” and “receive the data from electric meters and forward the data over a public network cellular back haul,” which then transmits the data to the PG&E data center. The term “network cellular back haul” refers to integration between cellular towers and the SmartMeter Program, which implies that cellular towers essentially send the data to PG&E.

Snapper confirms that for every five to 10 homes that opt out of the SmartMeter program, a repeater unit will be installed on the appropriate utility pole to make up for a void in the mesh network.

3. How often do SmartMeters send out wireless signals?

On their website, PG&E states that the SmartMeter transmits for less than one minute per day, on average. Nordhal says what PG&E did not state clearly in publicized fact sheets is that the meters can potentially squeeze more than 25,000 transmissions into 53 seconds.

“We’ve talked very openly about how SmartMeters work, and how frequently they transmit,” counters Snapper, adding that the meters transmit for approximately 45 seconds per day, which consists of numerous micro transmissions that happen for small fractions of seconds.

“Some communicate more, which averages about 60 seconds per day,” he says. “You have several micro transmissions within that 60 second period which can be spread across that 24 hour day.”

On Page Five of the Nov. 1 CPUC clarification document is a response to the question, “How many times in total (average and maximum) is a SmartMeter scheduled to transmit during a 24-hour period?”

The response states that with a hierarchical cell structure, meters will relay upstream and downstream traffic within the mesh.

“The total number of transmissions will include the scheduled reads, on-demand reads, alarms/alerts along with the network traffic needed for command and control (synchronization, security, data integrity and dynamic network resiliency).” Based on this schedule, it continues, the total transmissions for a meter over a 24 hour period are on average 1,268, or less than one time per minute. The maximum number of transmissions in a 24-hour period is estimated at 25,916, the equivalent of 18 times per minute, or once every 3.3 seconds.

However, 97 percent of the meters in this random sample transmitted less than 2,500 times in a 24-hour period.

Confirmed by Page Six of PG&E’s clarification document, most of what SmartMeters do is unrelated to a home’s billing data. SmartMeters transmit meter data only 10 percent of the time, while transmissions for “network command/control,” or the mesh network’s self-maintenance, equal 90 percent of transmissions.

“This isn’t the typical communications type of pattern that we’re used to,” says Maret. “This is a new form of communication—when you turn on your cell phone you basically have a continuous transmission while you’re using the cell phone and then it stops. It’s also different when compared to a microwave oven. A microwave oven doesn’t pulsate, it puts out a four or five gigahertz continuous frequency …”

Maret currently works with a nonprofit called Dove Health Alliance (DHA), where one of the functions is to look into increasing radio frequency radiation exposure and the potential health effects therein.

For Maret, the big question is whether these pulses have a different physiological or health effect than other wireless communications.

“A body works on electricity,” he says. “It works on electric fields. We know that these fields can have long-term effects, probably nothing very short term or acute, but over 10 years with these meters we may see all kinds of health issues coming up.”

4. Should customers be concerned about wireless radiation?
The amount of scientific studies in regard to the health effects of wireless radiation, or “low-powered non-ionizing radiation,” is increasing. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared non-ionizing radiation as a “possible carcinogen” on May 31.

PG&E notes that SmartMeters operate well below the limit set by the FCC.

“Customers have had concerns about the SmartMeter and wireless technology should know that SmartMeters are compliant with FCC standards,” says Snapper.

In addition to radiation standards, the FCC certification of the SmartMeter requires all meters to be installed “at a distance of 20 cm from all persons,” and “the antennae for this transmitter must not be colocated or operating in conjunction with any other antenna or transmitter.”

As many apartment buildings have their utility meters located within a single closet or wall, Nordahl says these meters likely violate the FCC requirements, as they are arguably “colocated.”
Maret says the FCC guidelines are based on exposure criteria put forth by engineers. The criterion in place assumes that if radiation levels do not cause the “thermal effect,” or the heating of tissue, they do not have an effect on the body.

“It was believed even cell phones don’t have effect if they don’t cause the heating of tissue,” says Maret. “But there have been studies to show that this is not true.”
One such study was published by the American Medical Association on Feb. 23, and showed that a cell phone held up to the side of a head had significant effects on blood sugar metabolism in the brain.
“It’s a non-thermal effect but it causes physiological changes,” says Maret.

Maret says too many unknowns remain in regards to the health effects of the SmartMeter, and calls for precaution when it comes to wireless technologies.

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