Smart meters Learn the facts: Web-driven fears are baseless

The Internet’s greatest strength is that you can find virtually anything you want to find on it. That is, however, also its greatest weakness. For every view, a supporting, but not necessarily correct, opinion can also be found. This can make learning the actual facts about a particular topic a daunting task.

La Plata Electric Association, not unlike most utilities across America, is in the process of replacing its meters with newer, “smarter” meters as part of an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) system. I am the system engineer at LPEA tasked with building out the AMI system, and I would like to provide you with the facts about what our system does and does not do.

The No. 1 concern I hear from a few of our members relates to the wireless technology our AMI meters use to communicate. Some are questioning if it is a health threat. LPEA’s AMI meters use small, 0.3 watt, 900 megahertz radios to communicate readings once or twice per hour. To put this in perspective, you would have to stand next to an AMI meter continuously for more than a year to receive the equivalent exposure you get from one 15-minute cellphone call.

The American Cancer Society states that “There is no clear evidence at this time that RF (radio frequency) waves from smart meters (or other devices) can cause harmful health effects.” See: www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/athome/smart-meters.

The bottom line is that if you are concerned about radio frequencies, those emitted by your cell or cordless phones, microwaves and fluorescent lights far outweigh the radio frequency emission of the AMI meter.

Another concern has been security. LPEA always keeps a member’s personal information and data confidential. The data we receive from the AMI system is no exception. LPEA’s AMI system returns hourly energy and voltage readings, which are necessary to manage today’s complex grid loading. With the recent influx of variable frequency drives, compact fluorescent lights, LED lights, and renewable generation, managing the distribution grid requires much more information than it did even five years ago.

The AMI system does not tell LPEA, nor does it have the ability to tell the co-op, what the energy you used was used for. Contrary to Internet lore, LPEA does not know when you are watching your television or doing laundry. LPEA also cannot control anything inside your home unless you request that we install a special control device to do so. A member may request this if they want to save money by opting into a program enabling LPEA to control the water heater or electric thermal storage heaters.

Another popular rumor regarding AMI meters is that somehow they increase the risk of fire and explosion, especially in homes with older wiring. All meters that LPEA uses meet the safety requirements as outlined in the National Electric Safety Code. More than 1 million meters like the ones LPEA is deploying have been installed for many years across North America, with billions of hours of runtime, and not one fire. Electrical fires because of faulty wiring do occur, but they are no more likely to occur with an AMI meter than they are with any other electrical meter.

Now that I have addressed much of what LPEA’s AMI system does and why it benefits LPEA, let’s discuss why it is a benefit to you, the member. As mentioned, the AMI system returns hourly readings back to LPEA. This is information that you, the member, can view at LPEA’s website by clicking on the SmartHub link, which requires a secure log-in. Here you can make month-to-month comparisons and see how your usage varies from day-to-day and hour-to-hour. These important tools can help you understand your usage, and, ostensibly help you reduce your use. The hourly information will also help our customer service representatives and energy use advisors assist you in troubleshooting abnormal usage.

Perhaps the biggest benefit you’ll see with AMI is that the system immediately reports to LPEA when there is a loss of power at your meter. This helps our dispatch and crews pinpoint where the outage has occurred more quickly, enabling us to get your power restored faster.

In short, AMI meters will help LPEA help you. More information can be found on our website, www.lpea.coop, but if you also choose to hit the Internet and do some more research of your own, do try to find professional peer-reviewed journals. Think twice about taking the opinion of one person with a blog.

Dan Harms is a system engineer with La Plata Electric Association in Durango. Reach him at dharms@lpea.coop.

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