Future of Wireless Metering: Reader Poll Has Some Surprising Results

Aug. 27, 2012
There has been a fairly small but growing consumer resistance against smart meter installations based on 1) potential health effects, 2) security and privacy concerns and 3) unclear immediate customer benefits.

There has been a fairly small but growing consumer resistance against smart meter installations based on 1) potential health effects, 2) security and privacy concerns and 3) unclear immediate customer benefits. The loudest concerns have been around wireless health effects. Wireless security concerns also keep popping up.

Because most of the push-back against smart meters has focused on wireless meters, we've been running a poll to find out how readers see the future of wireless smart meters.

Our readers include power industry leaders and thinkers from all over the world – here's what they're saying:

A little less than half think that wireless smart meter deployment will continue at the current rate. Customer push-back will remain small, local and distributed and may leave significant "holes" in deployment.

• Surprisingly, less than 15 percent think communications platforms will expand to include more fiber, power line carrier and other options.

• The remaining 40 percent are split between two extremes – half believe that better identification of smart meter customer benefits will overshadow any perceived risks and deployment of smart wireless meters will actually accelerate.

• Most surprising - the other half, about 20 percent of all responders, believe that governmental agencies will put the brakes on further wireless smart meter deployment while safety and security concerns are evaluated.

The last two bullets are curious – there are about the same number of super-optimistic folks as there are those who predict a dour outcome for wireless.

Here are my thoughts -

Given that smart meters and Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) provide the primary data foundation for smart grid goals and distribution management in general, there's little doubt that smart meters are becoming permanent components of the utility/customer system. Smart meters continue to be deployed at the rate of about 10 million per year. As of May 2012, almost one in three U.S. households had a smart meter. At that rate, more than half the households in the country will have a smart meter by 2015.

With few exceptions, installations rely on some form of 2-way wireless communication platform.

One thing's for sure, the smart meters we have today will evolve quickly – that's just the nature of modern technology cycles. Along the way customer reaction to wireless technology and other factors may push the industry to greater use of fiber, power line carrier (PLC) or other yet-to-be developed communication. Also, as several readers pointed out both in comments and emails, PLC is the economic choice in rural areas. But deployment of these options will be the exception, particularly in densely populated areas.

(Fiber in particular got a big black eye when the Boulder, Colorado/Xcel Smart Grid City project fell apart largely due to 200 miles of fiber-optic cable that cost $20 million to install. In hindsight, if the main purpose of the project was to demonstrate "smart city" capability, wireless communication would have been a whole lot cheaper. I live right outside Boulder and got to watch the messy project come apart: The fiber overrun was explained as being due to the unexpected amounts of rock that that stalled the trenching. Well, pardon me, but the name of the place is, uh, BOULDER for Pete's sake!)

Anyway, as to potential health effects of wireless meter transmissions, advocates of wireless point out that the AMI transmitter on the side of the house or even a smart thermostat on the wall is hardly comparable to a cell phone held an inch from the brain. And the National Cancer Institute concludes that there are either no significant increased risks due to cell phone use, or the results of studies are inconclusive, depending on which type of tumor is being discussed. A better comparison would be the household wireless router, which no one seems particularly worried about.

Undaunted, critics of the potential health effects of smart meters point out that the transmission bursts from the meters every 15 minutes produce a broad spectrum of frequencies beyond the main carrier frequency, and the effects of this health phenomenon is unknown. (Who'd a thunk EEs would have their Fourier spectrum theory used against them??).

The controversy may stabilize to a dull roar, but it won't go away.

The biggest challenge for the industry is still to demonstrate quantifiable benefits of smart grid technology to the consumer. At the same time the customer needs understandable and credible research-based information on safety and security issues. But getting the correct information in front of customers requires that the utility industry put more muscle into what it has never done particularly well - communicating with and educating customers. And we'd better get with it before it’s too late. Without a palpable end-use customer demand for smart grid technology, progress could slow down due to intervener energy and volume backed by anecdotal evidence and pseudo-science.

Then we might indeed see legislative action to ban wireless smart meter deployment.

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