by Emma Bailey
With the progression of technology comes with the promise of efficiency at increasingly lower costs. In respect to energy consumption, “smart meters” are an attempt to give homes information on their personal usage and how it relates to the “smart grid,” an interconnected transnational power grid. Backed by billions from the US government, the Smart Grid project was (supposedly) established with the goal of increasing energy efficiency by providing consumers with minute-by-minute reports of their energy usage data. But with an approximate 43% of homes across the US now connected to the grid via smart meter, has the initiative been a success? Are “smart meters” actually useful for everyday consumers?
With information ready, cycling constantly every hour, one would be led to believe that all this energy data would be put to active use by consumers. However, there has yet to be any indication that this is the case. Some have attributed their lackluster performance to the confusing nature of the meter. Without a simplified user interface, it would take some education for the average person to make sense of the readout and understand how that translates into dollars spent. And because the initiative has failed in making the information accessible to the consumer there hasn’t been a traceable effect in consumption.
Where did this fail? Some experts point to the too-technical design of meters rather than employing an interface common to most people like that of a smartphone. With the announcement of smart meters, many were expecting to have a relationship with this counter not unlike that which a gas pump; as energy is used an amount is communicated to the customer. This did not occur. And without the cost-effective and environmentally-friendly trends promised, where do the benefits lie? Where else does it come up short?
Part of the “allure” of smart meters springs from the fact it’s a part of a new generation of wireless technology. As developments in technology are made more accessible, the mention of anything better developed will have many consumers eager to climb aboard. In smart meters, this comes in the form of firmware. Like the operating system of a personal computer, a smart meter’s firmware allows it to operate, collect data, and distribute it accordingly. And like all devices operating with such software, it is susceptible to hacking.
By communicating with nodes, data packages can be sent to falsely record data and over or under represent energy usage. Usage reports can even be distributed to different accounts deliberately, forcing victims to pay two separate energy bills. This of course should surprise no one with working knowledge of digital devices, but to those unaware a smart meter can prove to be financially burdensome if they fall victim to hackers. Financial institutions have gotten better at reimbursing victims for false charges, but it still a long process that puts much of the onus on the victim. And while energy companies work to fortify the security of their smart meters, data of energy consumption could lead to erroneous environmental reports, further undercutting another of Smart Grid’s aims.
Citizens with smart meters in their homes might also develop physical illnesses due to the presence of electromagnetic or radio-frequency fields. While data is still being compiled on the possible health issues caused by these meters, many have raised concerns over the additional source of EMF’s within their home environment. This may be influenced by the placement of the meter in relation to where the person spends most of their time, their interaction with the meter, and other variables. But the American Cancer Society has expressed interest in exploring the technology and its health implications further.
At present, the American consumer may be tempted to upgrade simply because of the technological allure these meters are sold with, not to mention the assurance from President Barack Obama that they can be used to save families money and increase energy efficiency. But as in other countries like Britain, where millions of smart meters have also been introduced, customers are beginning to realize that this technology is both needless and a potential health and privacy threat.