‘Smart’ Meters Are Anything But…

1. Business case stands little scrutiny

BC Hydro’s Chief Project Officer for the ‘smart’ meter program Gary Murphy was recently on a whirlwind tour of West Kootenay municipal councils, touting the benefits of the nearly $1 billion wireless ‘smart’ meter program. I suspect this is being done to schmooze some of the dozen-plus BC councils that have now passed resolutions calling for a moratorium on the ‘smart’ meter rollout across the province. But with someone itching to become the next billionaire thanks to this program, the many intelligent objections to these wireless devices hasn’t slowed BC Hydro down one iota. Murphy exudes the air of a well-practiced politician in his presentation.

As many critics have pointed out, BC Hydro’s confidence in their ‘business case’ may not be as solid as they claim or the Campbell cabinet wouldn’t have felt the need to exempt it from review by the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC). Some US states have assessed the business case for ‘smart’ meters and rejected it. Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said Connecticut Light and Power Company’s plan to replace existing electric meters with advanced technology would be expensive and would not save enough electricity for its 1.2 million customers to justify the expense. Not surprisingly then, in a recent Georgia Straight poll, when asked “Do you support BC Hydro’s smart meter program?” 84 percent answered “no.”

Itron's 'smart' meter is being forced on British Columbians, many of whom object. Image credit: Martin LaMonica/CNET

And as far as Murphy’s claim that these new meters will save BC Hydro $100 million annually from marijuana grow-ops stealing power, this figure has been continually inflated to serve the ‘smart’ meter ‘business case.’ As Vancouver Sun writer Stephen Hume points out, “Back in 2004, at hearings into BC Hydro revenue requirements, BC Hydro estimated the cost of electricity theft at $12 million per year. Then a study from 2005 concluded that electricity theft documented from marijuana growing cases had actually declined by about half between 2000 and 2003.” So far BC Hydro hasn’t made a convincing case that grow-ops have increased exponentially since then.  Hume’s article is worth reading; he shoots a hole the size of Site C in the so-called ‘business case.’ (See end of post for link.)

I asked Murphy if a wired or fibre optic cable option for the ‘smart’ meter grid had ever been considered by BC Hydro. He said it had but was rejected due to increased infrastructure costs, increased liability (though he did not explain how) and its inability to “support the business objectives that we had.” That to me translates as: ‘we can make more money this way.’ (A lot more money.) Yet some countries such as Italy have chosen a system that transmits via the power lines. The state of Idaho uses a fibre optic system, and Maine has allowed customers an opt-out option.

Aside from the dubious financial benefits are concerns associated with the security of personal energy consumption data, vastly increased electricity costs to consumers, and potential health risks associated with increased exposure to radio-frequency radiation (RFR).

2. The Elephant in the Room: Health Implications

BC Hydro claims that, “the ‘average’ levels of exposure are well below the Health Canada safety guidelines.” Yet at a hearing last fall before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health, at least three international scientists – Dr. Magda Havas, Dr. Martin Blank, and Dr. Olle Johansson – testified that Safety Code 6 is “outdated and inadequate to protect public health.” BC Hydro’s own medical advisor Dr. John Blatherwick has publicly admitted as much (we have this on video). And yet BC Hydro is claiming that the radiation emitted by ‘smart’ meters is equivalent over a 20-year span to a single 30-minute phone call. When asked if this exposure rate calculated for RFR ‘spikes’ or peaks Murphy didn’t seem to know the answer. Stakeholder Engagement Advisor Harper Hadden said BC Hydro did in fact seek out a more rigorous standard, following Dr. Havas’ recommendation to emulate Switzerland’s public exposure standard, which is based on the Precautionary Principle. Hadden claimed their levels will be below the Swiss standard.

“I think Safety Code 6 allows up to 500 microwatts per square centimeter and we’re at two microwatts per square centimeter,” said Murphy. “We’ve established that our signal strength from our meter is substantially below a cell phone.”

Peak levels from these meters have been recorded at levels of between 2,500 and 4,000 microwatts per square centimetre and even higher. The Health Canada limits are 600 microwatts – already considered far too high by many scientists. According to Daniel Hirsch, lecturer on nuclear policy at the University of California Santa Cruz, utilities corporations aren’t taking into consideration the differing duty cycles and thus differing exposure levels of ‘smart’ meters and cell phones.

Nuclear expert Daniel Hirsch has pointed out the fallacy of the "low transmission" rates of 'smart' meters. Courtesy UC Santa Cruz.

“Comparing the peak dose to the ear from a cell phone, when the rest of the body gets vastly less radiation, with a whole body exposure where all organs get roughly the same dose from a Smart Meter, doesn’t seem appropriate.  If there is a cancer effect, it is likely associated with the total RF energy the body receives,” says Hirsch. In fact, by his calculations, “the cumulative whole body exposure from a Smart Meter at three feet appears to be approximately two orders of magnitude (or as much as 100 times) higher than that of a cell phone…”

Murphy continually emphasized reliance on “public health authorities” such as BC Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall, BC Hydro’s chief medical advisor. Kendall insists that despite the recent World Health Organization classification of RFR as a Class 2B Possible Carcinogen, “at current exposure levels these electromagnetic fields do not constitute a threat to the health of the public.” Indeed, Murphy went so far as to state that “the body of scientific evidence has demonstrated that there is no causal relationship between health effects and the exposure levels that we’re talking about with our system.”

Yet Kendall and Murphy would find themselves in the minority of global scientific opinion on the matter. Just one example is recent testimony given in California by Dr. Karl Maret, a medical doctor with degrees in biomedical engineering and physiology. Dr. Maret wrote that, “The biological effects of low-level, non-thermal electromagnetic fields have been researched for over 30 years. …there is now a large body of scientific literature describing several key mechanisms for the action of weak electromagnetic fields.” He urged application of the Precautionary Principle until the devices can be proven safe. Dr. Andrew Goldsworthy, a biochemist and scientific adviser to the European Space Agency, made a written submission to the Parliamentary Committee in April 2010 explaining in detail the well documented biological effects of high-frequency, low-power RFR.

3. Abandoning the Canaries in the Coal Mine

Then there’s the matter of electro-hypersensitivity (EHS), a globally recognized disability that affects some 3-5 percent of the population who are ‘extremely hypersensitive,’ with possibly as many as 25 percent whose somewhat lower sensitivity still affects their daily lives with chronic health issues. In 2006, Gerd Oberfeld, MD, epidemiologist of the Public Health Department in Salzburg, Austria, projected that 50% of the world’s population will eventually become EHS as more and more devices emit RFR. When I asked Murphy about this he gave another evasive answer.

“We treat those people respectfully and provide factual information to counter the incredible amount of misinformation that’s out there. I believe people have symptoms like that but we don’t believe they are caused by RF.”

Dr. Johansson has been at the forefront of global research into EHS and a courageous defender of the Precautionary Principle. Courtesy EM Radiation Trust.

Murphy failed to explain how “treating those people respectfully” translated into action, except to charge customers thousands of dollars to remove the ‘smart’ meter from your house to another part of the property. Murphy explicitly stated before Nakusp council that there is no opt-out. Yet as Dr. Olle Johansson of the Karolinska Institute explains, EHS, like other conditions such as chemical sensitivities, are related to the way we have altered the environment. “This environment-related impairment view, furthermore, means that even though one does not have a scientifically-based explanation for the impairment EHS, and in contrast to disagreements in the scientific society, the person with EHS shall always be met in a respectful way and with all necessary support with the goal to eliminate the impairment. This implies that the person with EHS shall have the opportunity to live and work in an electro-sanitized environment.”

4. Too Many Unanswered Questions

Murphy—unused to journalists asking the hard questions—was obviously feeling the heat the day I interviewed him in the Valley Voice office and cut the interview short after about a half hour. Other questions I’d planned to ask him included:

–How can you possibly argue that ratepayers will save money?  In all jurisdictions where ‘smart’ meters have gone in, rates have increased drastically. Toronto Hydro customers had increases averaging 80%. Ontario Hydro customers have had their bills double or triple. The situation is similar in California where ‘smart’ meters have been put in. Murphy tacitly acknowledged this when he explained that time-of-use rates were being avoided for now due to “sensitivity to what’s going on in Ontario.”

And if peak usage rates are eventually charged, do you really expect people to eat breakfast at 5 am, cook dinner at 10 pm, and shower at 2 am? Is this a realistic approach to conserving energy? I would argue that most people are already quite conscious of their energy usage, in part thanks to the successful PowerSmart program by BC Hydro. Has any attempt been made to provide incentives for industry to reduce its power consumption?

If you were truly concerned about conserving power, then why not offer a generous rebate for the installation of solar hot water systems and other ‘green’ household technologies to British Columbians? Was this ever considered? If not, why not? If so and rejected, then why? Imagine how much power we could save if for 6-8 months of the year thousands of British Columbians used solar energy to heat their water.

But the bottom line is the bottom line. As an electrician friend said to me recently, BC Hydro already has meters at all its generating facilities telling them exactly how much electricity is being used, when, and where. This is about making someone very, very rich.

And guess who gets to pay.

NOTE: There will be two rallies to call for a moratorium on the ‘smart’ meters; one on September 17 at the Vancouver Art Gallery from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and another in Victoria on September 18 at the Legislature grounds from 2:30–4:00 p.m. If you’re in the area please show your support.

Article first published in the Valley Voice (www.valleyvoice.ca) in shorter form. To read Stephen Hume’s article visit http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/Opinion+Hydro+numbers+electricity+theft+growers/5063364/story.html

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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