Renewable Energy Resilience

Nanogrids, Microgrids and Virtual Power Plants

Expert on new energy business models such as nanogrids, microgrids and virtual power plants, covering cutting edge energy and environmental issues for over 25 years.

Wireless "Smart Meters" Face Increasing Criticism in Marin County

Folks are generally quite gung-ho on the amazing power of wireless technology. From convenience to efficiency and cost savings, there’s plenty to rave about.

Yet in the San Francisco Bay Area -- and in particular in my Marin County home -- citizens are up in arms, blockading trucks and  opposing mandatory installation of smart meters. These opponents have been bolstered by a couple of major developments all occurring within the last month, so it is safe to say they are not going to go away quietly.

On January 4th, the Marin Board of Supervisors passed an emergency ordinance that effectively creates a one-year moratorium on smart meter installations by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in unincorporated Marin (which includes my West Marin in Stinson Beach).

On January 7th, smart meter opponents from Marin County touted a new study carried out by consulting firm Sage and Associates that finds that associated health impacts with wireless smart meters may include neurological symptoms such as headache, sleep disruption, restlessness, tremors, cognitive impairment, and tinnitus, as well as increased cancer risk and heart problems.       

Has California gone nuts? That’s a topic always open to debate. But before advocates of the smart grid dismiss such developments as utter nonsense and just the latest Luddite craze, there really is a more intelligent response. As business guru and “systems theory” MIT professor Peter Senge might say, crisis breeds opportunity, and the sooner industry starts addressing these consumer concerns, the better for all involved. If Europe can shift to a smarter grid without complete reliance on wireless technology, why can’t we?

Let’s just say 1% of the total population can link maladies to wireless smart meters. Is it really fair to subject these poor individuals to ubiquitous wireless radiation in all of our cafes, hotels and even their homes – without any choice? If there wasn’t so much money on the table, the rational answer would be no.

But there are other alternatives. Just ask Echelon, which is deploying its smart grid technology over wires with Duke Power, and is looking for its own little pot of gold at the end of the smart grid rainbow. The uproar over wireless smart meters could provide an opening for it and other like-minded businesses offering smart grid alternatives.

The fact is the science is still incomplete. Cell phones are increasingly being linked to brain tumors and other health problems. According to critics, wireless pulses from smart meters radiate 2-15 times per minute, 24 hours a day and are approximately 2-3 times the intensity of a cell phone. I am not a scientist, so cannot substantiate or refute these claims. There is a major drop-off in radiation with increased distance, so even if true, most residents may still be quite safe with wireless smart meters, depending upon the exact location of these devices near homes.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has a schizophrenic response to this dilemma. On one hand, it has refused to stop smart meter installations; on the other, it has ordered an investigation into the health impacts of these same smart meters. Interestingly enough, 2000 state ratepayers have filed health complaints regarding smart meters to the CPUC to date, and that number is likely to grow over time.

"The CPUC could easily resolve this contentious situation by offering a broad wired opt-out alternative,” said Barry Smith, Co-Director of the Point Reyes based West Marin Community Coalition for Environmental Health. "Why are they in such a hurry?  If this technology is safe and their goal is to reach out to the customer and listen to their concerns, then why are they trying to install smart meters as fast as possible in Central and West Marin County?”

Smith’s comments actually sound logical. That’s bad news for unabashed fans of wireless technology. There is no easy answer. But sticking our heads in the sand has never been good for business in the long run. It is time for some genuine scientists – not linked to either the “pro” or the “con” camp -- to weigh in. Diversity is always a good hedge, and no business model – including the smart grid – is immune from that basic risk mitigation strategy.

©2016 Peter Asmus. Photo credit: David Clites. Website by: IMManagers.com