Electric utilities have been installing smart meters throughout the country. Today, tens of millions can be found in homes, and they are now the most common type of meter in the U.S. The technology is a key component of the smart grid and the modernization of power generation and distribution to improve the reliability, affordability and safety of electricity.
What is a Smart Meter?
The primary difference between a smart meter and older electric meter technology is the smart meter’s ability to engage in two-way communication between the utility and customer. Older meter technology tracks the amount of electricity a home uses; however, a utility employee then has to walk by the meter to read and record its output or drive by to download usage data that is transmitted.
A smart meter is able to bypass this step by transmitting the data directly to the utility. Utilities can complete meter reading and service orders remotely rather than sending vehicles on the road to complete those functions. The two-way communication provides more detailed information to customers and utilities, allows for better outage detection and recovery, can integrate new electricity pricing models, supports renewable energy and enables new energy efficiency and demand response programs. In other words, smart meters afford numerous advantages for both customer service and grid operation.
Brunswick Electric Membership Corporation, for example, has used smart meters with advanced metering infrastructure to better monitor how its system is performing and to launch a program that looks at member usage data and identifies irregularities that may indicate a problem. (Advanced metering infrastructure refers to technologies that provide the two-way communication between utilities and smart meters.) An additional new program allows members to pay for their power in advance, so they can buy it when they need it, as well as view their monthly, daily and hourly energy usage.
In addition to providing customers with hourly and daily usage information and expanding customer programs, Duke Energy’s smart meter network helps to improve outage response and speed restoration following disruptions. Crews working to repair power lines in the field can ping meters along the lines to ensure that all homes and businesses have been restored. This technology has enabled the company to complete final restorations after major storms up to two days faster than through conventional methods of driving by a line to verify restorations.
On the economic side, smart meter deployment generates opportunities for growth as companies provide the products and services that make up advanced metering infrastructure systems, including the smart meters themselves as well as data centers, communications networks and analysis tools.
Are Smart Meters Safe?
Despite the benefits of smart meters, concerns have been raised over their potential health impacts stemming from the radio frequency (RF) radiation they emit when transmitting data. RF radiation is a type of low-energy, non-ionizing radiation, meaning it does not have enough energy to remove electrons from atoms and molecules and cannot damage DNA (unlike X-rays and ultraviolet rays). Many common household devices give off this type of radiation, including cellphones, baby monitors, satellite dishes and microwaves.
RF radiation, however, has been classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer based on potential links to a type of brain tumor. Therefore, one idea is that because smart meters emit RF radiation, they could increase cancer risk. Other claimed health effects include dizziness, fatigue and headaches.
Despite this classification, a review of the best-available research linking cellphone radiation and cancer — particularly brain cancer — noted that one of two conclusions could be drawn: that cellphones do not cause tumors or that the studies suffer from sufficiently poor data to know for sure. Smart meters give off less radiation than cellphones and the other devices mentioned earlier and are typically located many feet away from humans. Furthermore, they often broadcast on the same frequencies as digital meters that have been used safely by utilities for years. With these ideas in mind, the American Cancer Society has stated that it is very unlikely that living in a home with a smart meter increases risks for cancer.
The best current evidence suggests that smart meters are safe. They have small power outputs, transmit data infrequently and produce RF radiation at significantly lower levels than the limits set by international authorities and the Federal Communications Commission. The benefits that smart meters offer utilities and their customers, however, are clear, and the technology will continue to play an integral role in the functioning of the electric grid.
To learn more about this technology and its applications, view our webinar on smart meters and advanced metering infrastructure.