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Opting Out

Providing reasonable options for customers who object to smart meters.

Fortnightly Magazine - January 2012

But vigorous efforts to establish such evidence have produced no clear demonstration of harm. Jacobsmeyer says that three clear facts indicate that smart meters are safe for humans. First, the effects of radio frequency exposure on humans have been extensively studied scientifically since before World War II. Second, the FCC defined and adopted its exposure limits after considering the available research. Smart meter exposure falls under FCC jurisdiction. And finally, due mostly to relatively low transmitter power and low transmit duty cycles, consumer exposure from deployed smart meters is far below the FCC limit, even in cases of multiple meters mounted on a single wall.

The overall point is that no health hazard associated with smart meters has been reproducibly found or verified, though a great deal of effort has been applied seeking such hazards. On the other hand, it hasn’t been proven that there’s no risk. The risk is low, lower than the risks associated with many things Americans do every day. For many people, including policy makers, the positive benefits of smart meters and smart grid are ample to motivate acceptance of this small risk.

Privacy Worries

Amid widespread concern about identity theft, some people fear that, once gathered by the utility, detailed meter data might be used to breach a customer’s privacy in substantive ways. For example, one YouTube video entitled “Smart Meters: A Little Too Smart?” claims that the data will show when the electric toothbrush is used and, by implication, reveal other minute details of private life. In fact, smart meters have never offered any prospect of this and, even if they did, the information would have little interest or value to an electric utility. But more substantive uses of electric energy, such as a pool pump or electric water heater, might be discernible in the data, and customers might reasonably wonder what, if anything, obliges a utility to protect such data with appropriate care.

Longstanding policy and precedent require utilities to keep customer data confidential. According to Eric Ackerman, director of alternative regulation at the Edison Electric Institute: “Investor-owned electric utilities have always protected the privacy of their customers. Since well before the advent of the smart grid they have had privacy policies, which are overseen by their regulators. It’s true that the smart grid presents significant new issues, which utilities must address by reviewing and updating existing policies and practices—and this process is well underway.”

Ackerman explains broadly that virtually all utility privacy policies include two core principles:

1) Distribution utilities must share customers’ energy usage data with contracted third party agents in order to bill for services and plan and operate reliable systems; and 2) Customers have the right to control whether any other third party is granted access to their data.

Some third parties act as agents for the utility to support essential functions, such as billing, tree trimming, and electric operations. Ackerman explains that the utility’s obligations become the agent’s obligations.

“Where a third party is acting as an agent for the utility—that is, doing work under contract to the utility—the contract