SANTA CLARA, California -- Reporting from Connectivity Week.
The conspiracy theories surrounding the mass deployment of smart meters include:
- Smart meters are overcharging customers (some truth in a few isolated cases; also see the Bakersfield debacle)
- The government can now control my electric blanket and refrigerator (no, not really)
- RF signals are causing consumer health problems (difficult to prove conclusively and we also need to assess cell phones, Wi-Fi sources, microwaves, and baby monitors)
- RF signals are controlling my mind (no, these are not the smart meters we're looking for)
Case closed. Can we move on?
Actually, no, we can't. The proliferation of anti-smart-meter citizen groups is a direct result of the lack of community outreach by the utilities in the smart meter rollout, according to the working groups at Connectivity Week. (Here's a link to the "Stop Smart Meters!" website.)
Erich Gunther of EnerNex said, "The RF issue is a distraction."
How should policymakers address potential workarounds for a minority of consumers unconvinced by available evidence and determine who should pay for them? Charge them to opt out? That's another public relations crisis in the making. How do we make sure that unsubstantiated apprehensions don't overshadow the larger societal and environmental benefits of modernizing the grid?
The conclusion by the panelists on Monday was that lack of market education and poor consumer outreach by utilities has allowed smart meter conspiracy theories to proliferate.
Chris Villarreal, a Regulatory Analyst at the California Public Utilities Commission said that "complaints about meters eventually come back to CPUC," adding that "the story is not being told to the customer," although, "The promise of AMI was oversold." (Villarreal's views are his own, not those of the PUC.)
Chris Thomas, Policy Director for the Illinois Citizens Utility Board (CUB), is in the midst of preparing a study on the health impacts of smart meters. He said, "In some cases the RF issues are magnified because the benefits of the meter are not identified."
Personally, I'm pretty sure that Lee Harvey Oswald didn't make that shot. And I have some questions about WTC building 7 -- but I don't think Obama wants access to my toaster and I don't believe that smart meters present any more of an RF threat than the ocean of RF we're already immersed in.
Utilities need to make the case for smart meters and the smart grid to the public. They need to identify the benefits to the consumer. And they need to hone their PR skills.
The electrical grid is changing and, by necessity, utilities are going to have to change, as well. Utilities will need to transform that part of their culture that identifies the consumer as a "rate payer" instead of a customer they need to keep happy and informed.