They could be watching you.
Image: Joan Conrow

While monitoring our energy use, could smart meters also invade our privacy and harm our health?

A new kind of electrical meter is coming to Hawaii, one smart enough to engage in two-way communications with the power plant. Utility companies like them because they offer real time reports on consumption, outages and other factors that affect reliability of the grid. Smart meters are also touted as a way to help consumers curb electrical use.

But as Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) prepares to be the first in Hawaii to roll out a “smart grid” initiative, residents seem uncertain whether they’re guinea pigs or pioneers.

Some, like Jane Ely, have vowed they will never allow KIUC to install smart meters in their homes, expressing worries about potential health impacts from the pulsed microwave radiation they emit. Others, like Kauai resident Felicia Alongi-Cowden, have raised concerns about privacy issues.

On Kauai, where the utility is a member-owned cooperative, folks have another gripe, too. “The board should consult with membership before committing funding and taking action,” says Jonathan Jay, who coordinates activities for Power to the People of Kauai.

Overall, though, resistance has been muted, and KIUC has made much of the fact that a federal Department of Energy grant will pick up half the $11 million tab.

“To have a whole island switch over is pretty significant,” says Hermina Morita, Kauai resident and chair of the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC). “We’re not seeing anything else on this scale.”

The only other “smart” project in the Islands just got under way in Kihei, Maui, where the Hawaii Natural Energy Initiative (HNEI) is testing the technology on about 100 homes.

KIUC’s island-wide roll out, affecting some 33,000 meters, is set to begin in April and will take about five years: two for installation and another three for data gathering and analysis, according to PUC documents.

“It is a pilot program,” Morita says. “One of the reasons we’re moving it forward is it’s not only about the meters at the house, but they [KIUC] need these kinds of devices on the transmission distribution side. People expect their electricity to be reliable. Because our grids are so small, every glitch is magnified, and that can cause the whole system to cascade and black out. Smart meters help to manage loads more efficiently.”

They do this by communicating with the utility via a wireless or power line carrier system that sends information back to substations. But Ely and others worry that human health could be harmed by ongoing exposure to the meters’ radio frequency (RF) transmissions and say federal safety guidelines are inadequate. “Exposure is additive and consumers may have already increased their exposures to radio frequency radiation in the home through the voluntary use of wireless devices,” she says.

HNEI faculty member Jay Griffin met similar concerns when soliciting volunteers for the Maui test project he’s managing, prompting him to investigate. “Obviously we don’t want to be pursuing something that will people make sick,” Griffin says. He came away from his research agreeing with an independent panel of academics and public health officials from California, where some towns have already banned the meters. “The people on that committee found no basis for long-term health effects for the technology,” he says, “But these are things we have just started using. They felt federal authorities should continue to monitor their use and update safety standards if needed.”

Griffin sees value in a smart system because it allows a utility to monitor what’s happening between the substation and the homes. “We’re seeing a huge increase in the amount of rooftop solar photovoltaic going on, so the ability to communicate and manage things at local neighborhoods becomes very important,” he says.

However, the systems also raise questions about exactly what personal data can and will be gathered, and how it will be used. Demand-response units allow a utility to remotely turn off appliances such as hot water heaters and air conditioners as needed in order to manage peak loads. In-home-display units, on the other hand, let customers see exactly how much energy they’re using at any given time. KIUC spokeswoman Maile Moriguchi says the utility was awarded funding for 500 of each device, and residents will participate in pilot programs “on a strictly voluntary basis.”

But while participation may not be mandatory at the start, smart meter critics fear that once smart technology is in place, it could open the door to utilities micromanaging their customers’ energy use or sharing private data with government agencies.

“I am concerned that there has not been enough focus or transparency on the level of control that KIUC potentially will be yielding to the federal authorities,” says Alongi-Cowden, noting that federal monies typically come with strings attached. “Almost all federal programs place constraints on personal freedoms that are not revealed at the onset and are mostly realized after implementation. KIUC is deciding the critical energy strategies for the members before truly engaging the discussion.”

She and others are also upset that KIUC has failed to address members’ concerns by resisting an opt-out option. Says Moriguchi: “Members will be offered an opportunity to be placed on a deferred install[ment] list until the board comes to a decision on an opt-out program.”

KIUC members have also criticized the utility for spending money on smart meters rather than photovoltaic systems for homes, which would also decrease electric costs.

But Morita says it’s not that simple. “People think just because you put up a PV system everything’s gonna be fine. To manage renewables on the grid is really challenging, so you need these kinds of communications devices to manage and maximize the system.”

Since the utility continues to embrace renewables such as solar, hydroelectric and wind, which create instabilities in the grid, it would have been making the investment in smart technology, anyway, Morita says. “Federal funding makes it really attractive to roll it out faster.”