What Smart Meter Activists Lack in Science, They Make Up for in Effectiveness

Today's pace of increasingly rapid technological change fosters all kinds of psychological and social dislocations and nowhere is this more true than with the advent of the smart grid, which requires digital smart meters to be installed at every customer's location. The worries spawned by the devices, which feature two-way radio or RF communication features, seem to be growing, with dozens of campaigns underway to block or at the minimum allow customers to opt-out out of the meter installations.

Over the past month, developments have pushed the issue of smart meter threats more clearly onto the national radar screen. Last week, Maine's highest court ruled that the state's public utility commission failed to adequately address potential health risks associated with the meters and urged the regulatory authority to give smart meter detractors an opportunity to air their concerns.

At the end of June, staff at the Michigan Public Service Commission issued a report concluding that although they believe smart meters do not pose health risks, ratepayers should be given the right to opt-out of the devices. And from Vermont to Texas to Maryland to Hawaii, anti-smart meter groups are pushing to get mandatory smart meter installations overturned or modified to allow for opt-outs.

Three fears are fueling the smart meter fire: fear over purported health risks, fear over potential privacy invasion and fear of increased cyber security threats. While everyone agrees that smart meters do in fact raise legitimate privacy concerns due to the increased data generated by the devices, and no one doubts that the nation's electrical infrastructure is more vulnerable to cyber threats now that digital technology is part of the power grid, the issue of health risks caused by meters is hopelessly muddled.

Scientific Researchers Can Find No Evidence of RF Risks But Won't Rule Them Out

On the one hand, industry groups, engineers and mainstream scientists make a solid case that no scientific evidence exists that smart meters cause any of the health problems attributable to RF “radiation,” from cancer to neurological conditions such as depression to heart disease to ocular burning. Virtually all of the commonly accepted scientific research cited by anti-smart meter advocates ties back to research on cell phones and the potential of these mobile devices to cause electromagnetic illnesses.

But even here the evidence is weak and can't be applied to smart meters. The amount of RF radiation from cell phones dwarfs any possible exposure from smart meters and can't be used as a comparison, experts say, adding that few people plan to hold their smart meters against their heads or near their bodies anyway, as they do with cell phones.  Virtually all generally accepted scientific research on cell phone radiation concludes that insufficient evidence exists to link electromagnetic illnesses with the devices.

However, a few generally accepted scientific studies have been unable to rule out the adverse effects of cell phones, using careful and qualifying language that anti-smart meter advocates have pointed to as “proof” of the potential problems that could be caused by smart meters. A widely reported and respected study conducted by the World Health Organization concluded that no evidence exists that mobile phones cause certain kinds of brain cancer, as has been alleged. But, this same study did conclude that there were “suggestions” that the incidence of a particular kind of brain tumor, glioma, increases with mobile phone use. “The possible effects of long-term, heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation,” the report concluded.

The couched, careful language of science, which rarely wanders far from the evidence, doesn't help quell fears when it comes to proving that smart meters pose no health risks. As another example, in a presentation to the Michigan PSC earlier this year, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory kicked off their talk with the following double-edged conclusion:
While scientific evidence overwhelmingly concludes there are no problems related to smart meter RF exposure, health science cannot conclude that individuals will not experience negative side effects.

Smart Meter Opponents Don't Necessarily Have Science on Their Side...But They're Effective

Smart meter opponents often rely on research, or sometimes just arguments and assertions, that don't hold water among traditional scientists. A frequent source of substantiation on the adverse effects of smart meters is the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM), an organization backed by doctors concerned about environmental illnesses.

In April, The AAEM released a position paper, one of many, that called for “immediate caution regarding smart meter installations,” saying that “significant harmful biological effects occur from non‐thermal RF exposure.” Although impressive sounding, the AAEM is not recognized by traditional medicine organizations and has been labeled a “questionable” organization by Quackwatch for often venturing into unchartered alternative therapy territory.

What smart meter opponents lack in hard science, however, they make up for in energy and passion. And thus far they have been very effective in changing how smart meters get deployed.

Smart meter opponents were a driving force behind the California' PUC's decision earlier this year to give PG&E customers opt-out rights, which has sparked a chain reaction of opt-out requirements throughout the state. In May, Vermont took the issue a step forward and eliminated utility-requested fees that customers had to pay in order to opt out. The Maine court decision last week stemmed from appeal efforts mounted by smart meter opponents.

From Arizona to Wisconsin, there are 48 separate and active stop-metering groups bird-dogging smart meter roll-outs. Anti-smart meter organizations are in Canada, Australia, Europe and Japan. There are anti-smart metering consultants, experts (many of whom have scientific credentials), websites, videos and even feature films. Including independent groups that are concerned about "electrosmog" problems generally, at least 70 active groups are writing, advocating against or organizing against smart meters globally.

For reasons having to do more with privacy and cyber security than health risks, Tea Party activists are taking up the anti-smart meter flag in many areas of the country, applying the political skills learned during the heyday of that movement to advance another agenda.  Aggressive Tea Party efforts have stoked such fervent concerns in Nevada that the Public Utility Commission felt it had to hire armed guards for a smart meter hearing.

Even if some of the smart meter opponents have political smarts, most seem to be genuinely concerned about the ramifications of having so many electromagnetic waves buzzing around us and through us, particularly those among us who are “electromagnetically sensitive.” They intuitively and strongly believe that the smart meter is very much an unwelcome visitor into their homes, and are even concerned about being surrounding by homes served by smart meters.

Utilities, which seem surprised by the fervor of the anti-meter groups, worry that if too many people opt out of smart meters, the scale economics dictate higher deployment costs, and potentially higher costs for manually reading the old analog meters. Opt-out rates in California were initially below 1%, although PG&E believes that ultimately 150,000 of its 5 million customers, or around 3%, may opt out of the meters.

Utilities are trying to hold back the tide of concern through various individual consumer outreach efforts. The industry-backed Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative is trying to serve as a broader clearinghouse for listening to consumer and advocate issues and disseminating what information it can.

But at this point, the passion of smart meter opponents is unwavering and unresponsive to the somewhat traditional, rational responses these industry efforts put forth.  In a way it almost resembles the irresolvable debate between faith and science, with one side rooted in passionate belief and the other reliant on cold, hard scientific facts, baffled by the believers.


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