Getting a read on smart meters

By Rob Wipond, September 2011

Smart meters won’t endanger health or privacy, and will conserve energy, reduce theft, and produce cost savings. Or so BC Hydro tells us. But is there a hidden agenda driving what may be a billion-dollar boondoggle?

One exchange at BC Hydro’s tense public meeting in Victoria in March was emblematic of the debates about smart meters. Asked about the health dangers of smart meters’ wireless electromagnetic fields (EMF), BC Hydro consultant Dr John Blatherwick explained they’d rarely be transmitting, anyway: “Those things will be [operating] for one minute [per day] on average, up to a maximum of three [minutes].”

BC Hydro has said the same, but coming from a former Vancouver chief medical officer, this reassurance carried weight.

However, Walter McGinnis, an electrician who retrofits homes to reduce EMFs, said the meters actually communicate constantly, but in energy micro-bursts. He claimed BC Hydro was using sleight of hand to disguise that—like claiming a strobe light flashing on for 0.05 seconds every half second is technically only “on” for six minutes per hour. 

“I have tested it,” said McGinnis. “The meter does transmit all day every day.”

“I can’t debate that with you,” returned Blatherwick. “I do not know the specifics.” 

It was shocking to see Blatherwick blithely switch from shining a responsible, authoritative light onto the technical reasons why we needn’t worry, to admitting being in the dark about what he was even talking about.

The BC Liberals rankled many by ramming through legislation in 2010, decreeing BC Hydro “must” bypass public consultations and independent evaluations, and replace electricity meters across the province with digital smart meters by 2012. And Blatherwick’s flip-flop aptly shows why research-armed protesters have been making headway, such that the provincial privacy commissioner has launched a review, the BC NDP and Green Party have criticized the program, and local governments in Colwood, Metchosin, Saltspring and elsewhere have requested a moratorium. City of Victoria council has requested BC Hydro allow an opt-out option.

And yes, McGinnis was right, according to “An Investigation of Radiofrequency Fields Associated with the Itron Smart Meter,” a study involving Itron staff on BC Hydro’s own website. These meters send “fraction of a second,” “intermittent” signals to each other and higher-powered collectors with such “variability” based on so many shifting factors, it’s impossible to know exactly how frequent or powerful transmissions will be. Multiple times per minute seems common, though the 222-page report devotes several lengthy sections to discussing, “The Measurement Challenge Presented by Smart Meters.”

When I ask Gary Murphy, BC Hydro’s smart meter chief project officer, if I’ve taken a correct understanding from that report, he doesn’t assent—but doesn’t exactly disagree, either. 

“I wouldn’t take it that way to that degree, Rob,” says Murphy. “When our system is stabilized, those microsecond bursts would occur perhaps every 30 minutes or more. They’re not occurring every second or every minute—once our grid is stabilized.”

How likely “grid stabilization” is, though, also remains questionable (e.g., see “Theft and Security” below). 


Health science and spin

Nearly every aspect of the smart meter health debate plays out in such slippery fashion. 

BC Hydro issues a safety report measuring smart meter EMFs in relation to Health Canada’s Safety Code 6, even as Blatherwick concedes to critics, “Safety Code 6 is grossly out of date. I’m not going to hide behind Safety Code 6.” Meanwhile, a California team’s 2011 scientific overview on BC Hydro’s own website says US safety guidelines are also inappropriate and inadequate amidst “significant scientific uncertainty” and a “lack of generally accepted evidence.” 

Our health authorities regularly cite World Health Organization positions on EMFs, then whip into damage control when the WHO in May classifies EMFs as a Group 2B possible carcinogen. BC Provincial Health Officer Dr Perry Kendall issues a dismissive press release pointing out that Group 2B includes coffee and pickled vegetables, neglecting to mention HIV, lead, chloroform and DDT. Kendall summarily declares the WHO’s decision “was made based on the reported increased risk of a rare, malignant brain tumour.” He neglects to mention their additional citing of higher cancer rates of various types in animals, EMFs making other carcinogens more dangerous, and EMFs affecting “some” important cancer-related physical mechanisms on a long list that includes brain functions and the immune system. 

Maybe these findings so far still suggest a relatively low risk from smart meters compared to other common dangers, but aren’t Kendall’s statements sounding less like science than public relations?

“That’s probably a hard balancing act for him. And for me, for that matter,” says Hydro’s Murphy. “I can’t say unequivocally there’s absolutely no risk.” 

Yet more importantly, shouldn’t we be evaluating safety not only relative to individual devices, but also relative to our increasing dependence on, and strengthening of, ever-more-powerful and pervasive wireless communications systems? In any case, examining BC Hydro’s similar spinning of budget numbers, “balanced” is not the word that comes to mind.


Doctored numbers, too

The BC Hydro “Business Case” argues smart meters’ $930 million cost will actually “save” us $1.6 billion over 20 years.

Presumably, any tool which gives BC Hydro more detailed information about energy use could create improvements in efficiency. But BC Hydro projects that to be just $30 million annually—most from firing meter readers. 

Another $330 million of projected savings comes from all of us suddenly being inspired to conserve, once we’re watching our real-time electricity consumption on kitchen displays. Unfortunately, actually, smart meters don’t do that. You’ll have to buy another wireless device to send information from your smart meter to a kitchen display. Yet that device, available at hardware stores, would work just as well with your current meter.

Even then it’s a gamble. For example, this year Connecticut’s Attorney General called for a stop to smart meter installations, stating, “The pilot results showed no beneficial impact on total energy usage.” On the other hand, couldn’t one billion dollars be a game-changing contribution towards other conservation initiatives in BC? 

The rest of the projected savings, $732 million, comes from reducing theft. BC Hydro claims it’s losing $100 million annually to electricity theft from grow-ops, and smart meters will dramatically cut that. In 2004, BC Hydro said it was losing only $12 million annually to theft, then $30 million annually in mid-2010. As Michael Smyth in the Province and Stephen Hume in the Vancouver Sun have asked, marijuana is a growth industry, but suddenly eight-fold larger, and coincidentally just in time to single-handedly turn the smart meter project from scandalous waste to spectacular money-maker?

“Frankly, we did not have good records [previously],” responds BC Hydro’s Murphy. He also believes that 2006 legislation allowing municipalities to investigate large users drove more grow-ops to steal electricity.

Whatever the numbers, will smart meters reduce theft?


Theft and security

I ask Kris Constable, technical advisor for online security firm PrivaSecTech, if BC’s smart grid will be more secure against theft.

“Uh, no,” he says, stifling a chuckle. “There’s been no wireless security that hasn’t been penetrated to this date.”

But it sounds reassuring that BC Hydro will be using 128-bit AES encryption, the same as online banking. 

“That makes a lot of sense if you’ve never heard of an internet fraud department at a bank,” responds Constable. He says hacking into online banking systems is commonplace, but banks keep that secret because they don’t want us to be afraid of using them. 

Indeed, delving into the scientific literature, it’s difficult to find any expert who isn’t certain theft is about to increase dramatically, especially because smart meters are cheap devices in insecure, unmonitored locations. Research teams report easily cracking through anti-tampering seals, extracting passwords, eavesdropping on communications, creating meter-spoofing devices, and developing viruses that move from meter to meter.

These experts envision, as smart meters become more common, hacking software being spread on the internet, and ordinary people, companies, nation-states, and organized crime getting free or dirt cheap electricity, cloaking themselves in the mesh while foisting costs onto neighbours, or launching full-scale attacks on grids for any number of ends. “A fully digitized metering system is inherently more dangerous than its analog predecessor,“ one team summarized. 

Constable, like them, thinks it’s likely there’ll be remote software patching as frequent as Windows security updates, while meter readers will be replaced by more expensive meter-upgrade engineers. And even that, he says, won’t stop serious hackers.

“If BC Hydro employees can change the software or hardware, a malicious hacker can as well,” he explains. “It’s going to be what’s called a race condition in security. It’s like the bad guys versus the good guys, and...who’s faster?”

Murphy of BC Hydro remains confident: “It’s going to take one heck of an incredible expense and incredible effort for someone to try to spoof our system.”

“How much money do you think exists in grow-ops in BC right now?” asks Constable. “How much would it be worth to find a way to circumvent this new system?”

Murphy then speaks proudly of something that rings ominously to me: “We know, frankly, that the actions that we’ve taken, the public statements that we’ve made around this, have already caused the grow-op community to begin to think about doing things differently.”


What the meters really tell us

Perusing the internet, it’s evident all this debate is typical. Smart meters are being pushed globally like the latest iGadget, while almost everywhere being dogged by controversy over unresolved health, security and privacy concerns, overblown claims of benefits, rising installation and maintenance costs, and big rate increases through time-of-use billing. So why is BC getting breakneck speed installations with no significant pilot program, independent evaluations, or public consultations?

“I can’t speak to the politics,” says Murphy. “We are mandated by the Clean Energy Act to move forward.”

If you were a cynical conspiracy nut, you’d suspect that behind this classically Gordon Campbell-esque imperiousness are Liberal insiders profiting while mainstream media suppress the story and a massive plan is being hatched by corporations to seize control of...Uh-oh. Hold on.

To cite just two of many examples found by The Tyee’s Will McMartin: BC Hydro director Tracey McVicar is also a director of CAI Capital Management which owns Corix, the company that just got $73 million to install your meter. CAI also employs David Emerson, chair of the Liberal’s economic strategy council, CEO of BC Transmission Corporation when the smart meter plan was hatched, and director of Postmedia News. 

Meanwhile, a collective 2010 “Letter to the President of the United States” posted by Google promises so grandiosely to “unleash the forces of innovation” and “harness the power of millions of people,” you’d think installing smart meters was the save-us-all environmental equivalent of the World War II Manhattan Project. Signatories include a few large environmental organizations that promote green economic growth, plus 40-odd corporations like General Electric, AT&T, Comcast, Dow Chemical, Best Buy, Google, Whirlpool and, yes, Itron. Not exactly the heavy hitters of progressive environmentalism. What’s their secret agenda?

Actually, the agenda, along with the US National Broadband Plan the letter references, is hardly in code. First, install smart meters everywhere. Second, speed development of smart meter-compliant devices (which communicate with smart meters), and third, create a system like EnergyStar for “certifying” these devices. Follow time-of-use billing with device-type billing, so that certified devices get lower electricity rates (and non-certified devices get slapped with higher rates). Meanwhile, develop software tools that gather all this detailed household data about when people are using every device, and use that information to guide policy and product development. 

Essentially, like oil companies helping shape national energy policies, these corporations want to shape the way electricity is used and “green” electric products are developed. 

Sounds great—if you believe these corporations will do it with nothing but the noblest of intentions.

But what if utilities start to extract hefty fees from manufacturers to certify their appliances for lower electricity rates and slap higher rates on their competitors, like chain grocery stores sell prime shelf space now?

What if manufacturers, like computer firms that early-retire products and cut off support, maximize profits by selling new appliances every year that are always only slightly “greener” than last year, while you suddenly get hit with massive electricity rate hikes for your now “old” appliance? 

Google has been developing the software for you to monitor and control your smart meter-compliant devices. How long before they can beam banner ads for dating websites whenever your vibrator is recharging? Not long, suggests the US Electronic Privacy Information Center in its extensively referenced cautions about how smart meters can also track every device’s unique load signature, and even monitor movements of “non-energy-consuming items” bearing radio frequency identification tags. 

And how long will this private information remain private, once smart meters become the most penetrating general-population surveillance tool the world has ever seen, and those granular lifestyle details become collectively worth billions of dollars if sold to marketers, governments, corporations, law enforcement, and private investigators? 

I ask BC Hydro’s Murphy if BC is heading towards smart meter-compliant devices, certification systems, and time-of-use and device-type data collection and billing.

“If we do head in that direction, and I think that is possible, I think those are choices that consumers need to make, not the utility on their behalf,” he says. “That option would be there, but whether the company chooses to go there needs to be done with lots of public vetting.”

Yes...or will the public consultation part simply be bypassed again?

Rob Wipond was a finalist in the recent Western Magazine Awards for his regular Focus column.