METERING MR. SMARTY PANTS: We've spent a goodly part of the last decade predictably disappointed after Kaua`i was able to purchase its electric utility under the rubric of a "co-op."
Despite efforts to ensure things like democracy and open governance, right off the bat we could see the handwriting on the wall- the lack of adherence to those tenets has been all we thought it wouldn't be.
Kaua`i Island Utilities Co-op's (KIUC) opaqueness and manipulation of recent ballot issues has left most "members" disillusioned if not downright pissed off. And who can blame them.
That has also made every single thing they do subject to not just legitimate scrutiny but every wacko conspiracy theory that is even remotely related to providing the public with electricity.
So enter the latest paranoia-based plot to supposedly do us harm- "smart meters."
According to Wikipedia:
A smart meter is usually an electrical meter that records consumption of electric energy in intervals of an hour or less and communicates that information at least daily back to the utility for monitoring and billing purposes. Smart meters enable two-way communication between the meter and the central system.
Some have questioned the safety of smart meters because they "communicate" using electromagnetic signals. That is true- they use much the same low-level radio frequency (RF) signals and pulsed signal structure as wi-fi, modern cordless phones, garage door openers, baby monitors and similar devices.
But because any electromagnetic force (EMF) is defined as "radiation" there is concern among those who aren't privy to the science behind low, as opposed to high, level RF.
For an excellent detailed discussion on the subject of the health effects of smart meters we turned to an article by Bob Spofford the Energy Chair of Sustainable San Rafael, an independent, Marin County, CA, umbrella non-profit "dedicated to advocacy and community education (of) residents and business people organized around the idea that we can-and must-do more in our own community to fight global warming and encourage more sustainable living."
The article was published at the web site of "Open4Energy" an independent, consumer non-profit that evaluates energy technology devices.
An EMF creates electromagnetic waves (EMW). Spofford writes that it
pours out of every star - - not just as visible light, but in a very wide range from radio frequencies (thus radio astronomy) and all the way up beyond visible light to X-rays and gamma rays. This is important, because it means that humans evolved in an environment that included a lot of electromagnetic radiation (from the sun) and that we are adapted to certain kinds of radiation hitting us and passing through us with no harm.
There are two potentially harmful types of EMF, ionizing radiation and dielectric heating which have been extensively studied since the 1930's.
Spofford describes the ionizing radiation (IR) saying that that
is where very short wavelength waves are able to knock electrons off of molecules creating ions (charged molecules.) These in turn can cause all sorts of nasty biological effects. The lowest frequency that can cause ionization is ultraviolet, which can result in sunburn and skin cancer. They go up from there through X-rays, gamma rays and the particles from radioactive decay, all of which can cause burns, radiation sickness, cancer and more.
As we all know, this is the kind of radiation that can have a cumulative effect.
The second health issue is dielectric heating (DH) which includes things like microwave ovens, cell phones and yes, smart meters.
The potential harm in DH is related to the amount of power and the proximity to the source. While there is anecdotal evidence that long term exposure to a cell phone placed right beside the brain could cause cancer, it's important to note that despite 20 years of study no one has been able to show any spike in health issues for cell phone users in legitimate, published, peer-reviewed studies.
But it's also important to note that the dielectric heating in cell phones- and smart meters- is not the kind of radiation that is cumulative and is generally, as noted, all over the place in the atmosphere. And, of course, no one is sticking their head next to their smart meter for hours on end. As a matter of fact, the signal from a smart meter is emitted in short bursts, at most a few times a day.
As Spofford notes:
The reason for the focus on cell phones is that the radio transmitter in a smart meter is quite similar to a cell phone. It operates on 900 MHz at a power of 1 watt or less. On the other hand, it is usually much, much farther away from your brain. A 1-watt cell phone 1 inch from your brain would is 1,296 times stronger than a 1 watt smart meter 3 feet away (and it’s 14,400 times stronger than one 10 feet away and 57,600 time stronger than one 20 feet away.) This is the inverse square law in action.
The thing is that if you get burned or even "fried" by DH- as happened when a worker stood right in front of an extremely powerful microwave transmitter, Spofford notes- you'll know it. But it's a one time event, unlike the ionizing radiation that radioactive materials emit.
This is a vast oversimplification of the science. If you want a whole lot more than you probably ever wanted to know- or if you've actually studied this stuff and want the full low-down- we suggest you read Spofford's essay in full.
As to the actual arguments from those who claim there might be a scientific basis for the health danger of smart meters he says:
That’s pretty much where established science leaves off and speculative theories begin. The people opposed to smart meters haven’t been arguing that the danger is recognized things like ionizing radiation or tissue heating. Rather, a lot of them express a sort of generalized fear that there’s just “too much radiation” in our environment, and the smart meter is one more log - - perhaps one log too many - - on the fire. They fear that some day we’ll discover a health problem from the cumulative affect of all this low level radiation around us.
I have several problems with this line of thinking:
1. If there is something going on, the big culprit will have to be the cell phone, since the radiation exposure there is so much higher than all the other sources. Compared to cell phones, the smart meter isn’t a “log” on the fire, it’s more like a broom straw. So we should keep looking at the cell phone research, but in 20+ years, not much to be worried about has emerged.
2. They don’t really propose a mechanism by which this unspecified damage might occur, so they can’t tell us what facts would change their mind. This makes it well-neigh impossible for the PUC or any other fact-based body to say “here’s the proof you want that these things are safe.”
3. They keep coming back to the possibility of cumulative exposure to a number of low level radiation sources, and drawing parallels to things like cigarettes, which people once were told were safe. However, cigarettes and other cumulative risks are like ionizing radiation. There are chemicals in cigarette smoke that damage cells from the first exposure, and that damage then accumulates with repeated exposure until symptoms appear. Plus, the epidemiological connection between smoking and cancer was crystal-clear as soon as people started looking at the statistics.
We’ve been working with radio waves for over 100 years, and we’ve been walking around in them since the dawn of time, and we haven’t discovered any such pernicious effect from the kind of waves coming off the smart meters.
As to the rest of the health-based arguments against smart meters:
Beyond the cumulative exposure worries, there are people advancing a bunch of ideas that are just pure speculation (to use the polite word.) Their common thread is that there is something unique about the radiation from a smart meter – because it is attached to house wiring or transmits in pulses – that makes it a much greater health threat than other devices radiating at the same frequency and power. (Fact check: computer WiFi, garage door openers and modern cordless phones all use the same frequencies and pulsed signal structure.)
These claims of unique dangers are posited in very sketchy terms by writers who seem to have little understanding of the underlying science, so I have to guess at the supposed basis for them. As best I can determine, they seem to be borrowing – and misunderstanding – little snippets from ionizing radiation, the propagation of electrical noise and the mathematics of square waves. Until I see a more complete explanation for one of these theories that makes sense in terms of known science, I have to treat them as wishful thinking. However, the proponents are quite certain that their wishful “theory” alone is grounds to reject smart meters entirely.
One more item. Many argue that the Precautionary Principle- which, according to Wikipedia, says that "if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action,"- should be operative here as it is with, for instance, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
With GMOs the possible disastrous scenarios in changing the genetic material in organisms and releasing them into nature and in fact ingesting them, is well established and even proponents don't argue there are dangerous scenarios, only that they haven't found anything... yet.
But with smart meters, Spofford concludes by saying that:
My understanding of the Precautionary Principle is different. We can’t “prove” that anything is absolutely safe. That would require certainty of an absence of something, which no one can deliver. (There’s probably a long word for that in Philosophy courses.) The precautionary principle requires that if someone can advance plausible, specific reasons why a product might be harmful, we should hold back until we meet some reasonable level of proof that this isn’t the case. My interpretation of “plausible” in this context means that the feared threat, even if highly improbable, is at least consistent with known science. Otherwise, I could propose banning cotton clothing based on my personal theory that wearing cotton for 40 to 50 years makes your gut grow, your hair turn gray and your eyes go bad. (After all, there’s certainly a correlation.)
So far, the claims I’ve seen that the radiation from a smart meter is somehow “special” do not pass this test.
So, my net takeaway on the health issue is, yes, there’s always the distant possibility that some solid evidence connecting cell phones and health risks will emerge even after all these years. However, even if that happened, we’d have to question whether devices like smart meters, with thousands of times less radiation exposure than phones, are a danger.
We're sure that those that are convinced that smart meters are a monstrous plot to kill us all are sincere. Some cite reasons other than health-related reasons for banning them or at least allowing people to opt out of installing them and we won't deal with them here. But none have addressed the science and instead have used innuendo and "you don't trust the government/big corporations/etc. do you?" arguments which, on Kaua`i, given the history of KIUC is an effective, if fallacious, argument.
So what's the harm in letting people do the Chicken Little routine? The problem is that while they and those they convince are busy tilting at windmills, there are real energy-related issues that demand attention like fracking, Canadian sand-oil and the proposed pipeline, and off-shore drilling... as well as peak oil.
It wastes the precious energy of the small pool of apparently dedicated activist on something for which there just isn't any "there there."
Don't be fooled by pseudo-science or ad hominem and straw man arguments. There are bigger fish to fry than smart meters and indeed, if we are ever to end our dependency on fossil fuels and integrate carbon-free alternative energy into our grids, smart meters are going to be an essential element of that effort.