Smart meters make their debut

Scott Gibson

Central Maine Power Co. (CMP) is one of many electric utilities in the process of replacing analog electric meters with digital "smart meters" that send information on power consumption directly to company headquarters. CMP installed ours about a month ago, meaning we've seen the last of our meter reader.

Smart meters seem like a good idea to me. They make it easier for the utility to manage the grid, increasing efficiency and improving the response to power outages or surges in demand. In some areas, the meters allow customers, via the Internet, to get a real-time look at how much electricity they are using, thus encouraging conservation.

Unlike the old meters, which record only the cumulative total of how much electricity is used, smart meters can tell when the power is used, so customers should have better access to lower off-peak rates. If you have an electric water heater or certain types of electrical resistance heat, that could also be a money saver.

These seem like real advantages.

But not everyone likes smart meters. The local paper began running stories about CMP customers who wanted nothing to do with them. They complained the radio signals emitted by the meters were giving them headaches, sleep disorders and even heart palpitations.

There are other arguments against the meters. Tom Zeller wrote an interesting blog on this topic last fall in The New York Times that summarized the issues and attracted comments on both sides of the divide. The meters raise privacy issues, and some California customers complain they are wildly inaccurate.

As a result, some customers want the right to opt out.

It's not clear how this dispute will be resolved in Maine. But imagine how hard it would be to completely isolate yourself from electromagnetic radiation. What about mobile phones, microwave ovens, satellite TV, radio towers, garage door openers and the 101 other tools and gadgets with which we surround ourselves.

The type of smart meter installed on my house transmits data for 4.4 seconds per day, according to the Portland Press Herald. Right under my desk, a wireless Internet router runs 24/7. I also have a cell phone in my shirt pocket. Should I be worried about that?

There is no scientific evidence that low levels of radio frequency radiation cause health problems. "To date, research does not suggest any consistent evidence of adverse health effects from exposure to radio frequency fields at levels below those that cause tissue heating," the World Health Organization says in a statement on its website. "Further, research has not been able to provide support for a causal relationship between exposure to electromagnetic fields and self-reported symptoms, or 'electromagnetic hypersensitivity.'"

This won't mean much to the person whose health problems seem all too real. And there is always the possibility that long-term health studies will find something new, however unlikely that may seem now.

In the meantime, I am enjoying our smart meter. The day it was installed was the day I could stop shovelling a path to the far side of the house for the meter reader. And believe me, that felt good.

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