Fairfield Ledger

Mt. Pleasant News   Wash Journal
Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 21, 2018

Fairfield’s smart meter debate

Alliant, opponents differ on whether devices are safe
By Andy Hallman, Ledger news editor | Mar 29, 2018

Whether Fairfield residents should replace their analog energy meters with “smart meters” that emit radio waves has become a subject of controversy in the past few months.

Alliant Energy announced in late 2017 that it planned to install smart meters in 2019 for its Fairfield customers, though the company said customers have the option of using a non-communicating digital meter instead.

Some residents are worried about the health effects from the smart meter’s radio waves, used to transmit usage data to a central hub. Among them is Robert Palma, an electrical engineer with more than 46 years as a research and development engineer, including knowledge of electromagnetic fields. Palma said he is not an expert in human physiology, but his knowledge of radio waves has made him apprehensive about the use of smart meters in homes.

“I was worried about smart meters the moment I heard about them,” he said.

Palma worked for the Naval Weapons Lab in the early 1970s, specifically on electromagnetic vulnerability. For instance, the Navy discovered that electromagnetic fields generated by their electronic equipment wreaked havoc in unusual ways, such as one instance in which a missile from an airplane discharged unexpectedly and caused a fire on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Palma’s group was in charge of studying this phenomenon to learn how to avoid such disasters. Palma said the Navy had compiled more than 2,000 reports addressing this problem.


FCC limits

Palma worries that knowledge about the effects of radiation are not getting through to the proper authorities. For instance, he remarked on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration writing a 173-page letter on radiation to the Federal Communications Commission in 1994. He said the letter was intended to urge the FCC to raise its standards for what constitutes a harmful level of radiation, because the FCC had not changed its standards for years despite new information coming in. Palma said FCC standards are weaker than those of countries such as Italy, China, Switzerland, Hungary and Russia.

Palma wrote in a report on the subject of the effects of electromagnetic fields, “The differences between the FCC so-called safe exposure levels and those levels recommended by organizations that are concerned about human health and by specialists who measure and mitigate EMF is often more than or much more than 10,000 to one.”

Alliant Energy’s website states, “The Federal Communications Commission sets radio frequency limits and requires that all radio communicating devices be tested to ensure that they meet federal standards. [Radio frequency] from smart meters is many times lower than the FCC standard.”


What about digital meters?

Palma does not view a non-transmitting digital meter, an option Alliant has offered, as an acceptable substitute for a smart meter. That’s because he believes even the digital meters will produce “dirty electricity,” which can still enter the human body.

“The only approach for someone who wants a safe environment is analog,” he said. “They last 30-50 years. You can still buy them from a company in Florida, and California residents are opting out of smart meters in favor of analog.”


Avoiding smart meters in Hawaii

Fairfield resident Kathy Matara has personal experience living in a community that adopted smart meters. Matara had a house on the island of Kauai, one of the Hawaiian islands. In 2012, her local energy utility began rolling out smart meters in her neighborhood. The utility gave residents the ability to opt out, which Matara signed up for. However, some installers mistakenly removed analog meters on houses that had opted out, then later said they could not reverse the mistake because the analog meters had been destroyed.

Matara said she had to resort to locking her yard gate to stop the installers from coming in. She said it felt like an “invasion,” but she did get to keep her analog meter.

She came back to the continent, but on a return trip to the island, she noticed a bevy of health problems such as heart palpitations, insomnia, indigestion and trouble breathing. She didn’t understand what was happening to her, since she had never had these problems before.

“There was nothing wrong in my life that could be causing this,” she said. “A friend in Kauai told me it was the smart meters in the neighborhood, and said others had experienced the same symptoms.”

Matara was incredulous at first that the smart meters could be having such effects. However, her neighbor’s sons measured the radio waves in her house and found them to be high.

Matara has been back and forth to Kauai since 2012 but now when she visits, she doesn’t stay in her own house because of the smart meters nearby. She and her daughter moved into a neighborhood without smart meters. The community was able to stop the smart meter rollout, and now it’s trying to reverse it.

The lesson Matara wants others to take away from her experience is that it’s not enough to demand individual opt-outs. She said the whole community has to be involved.


Radiation drop-off

Matara disagrees with a number of claims made during a smart meter demonstration Nov. 16 in the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center. One issue is how much the radiation level falls off after a certain distance. She said Alliant has claimed the radiation drops off exponentially. For instance, if a person moves 10 feet away from the source, the level will have decreased by 100 times. That is also Palma’s opinion. However, Matara said that the instruments she’s used to measure smart meters show there’s no drop off in radiation level even when standing 35 feet from a signaling meter.

Something else Matara is suspicious about is how many times per day the smart meters emit radiation. Alliant has said they will transfer their usage data to the central hub six times per day. Matara is worried that the actual number of transmissions could be many times higher than that. She wants Alliant to publish the manual that came with the smart meter so the public will know how many times it transmits. She said a system of smart meters in a neighboring state that was also supposedly transmitting only a few times a day had a manual that said it transmitted 180,000 times per day.


Alliant’s point of view

On its website, Alliant explains why the company is switching to smart meters. Under the question, “What studies have been done on health impacts?” Alliant writes that an in-depth review of scientific studies by the World Health Organization has confirmed that the small amount of radio frequency in smart meters is not harmful to human health. The website also mentions that the company has been operating smart meters for its Wisconsin customers for 10 years, and that smart meters are installed in 65 million homes nationally, serving 50 percent of households.

Alliant said the radio frequency smart meters use is used in many devices such as cellphones, Wi-Fi routers, baby monitors, microwave ovens and Blue-tooth enabled devices. The website notes that only meter numbers, energy usage readings and diagnostic information are transmitted via its smart meters.


Health effects

The American Cancer Society’s website says it would be “nearly impossible” to conduct a study to prove or disprove a link between living in a house with smart meters and cancer because people have so many sources of exposure to radio frequencies, and the level of exposure from smart meters is so small.

“Because the amount of radio frequency radiation you could be exposed to from a smart meter is much less than what you could be exposed to from a cellphone, it is very unlikely that living in a house with a smart meter increases risk of cancer,” noted the website. It goes on to state, “Because low levels of energy from radio frequency radiation have not been clearly shown to cause problems even at close range, it isn’t clear that lowering exposure to radio frequency radiation has health benefits.”



Alliant argues that smart meters are safer than analog meters because they have a heat sensor, and send a signal to the hub if temperatures exceed normal levels. The company said meter failures are generally unrelated to the type of meter a customer has, because the main causes of meter failure are: 1) Worn connections and components inside meter bases; 2) Customer tampering; 3) Accidents.

Alliant said its smart meters sends six signals per day, which each signal lasting 0.15 seconds.

In answering a question on its website “Don’t smart meters signal all day?” Alliant responds that they do not.

“We use a hub-and-spoke type network, where there is no communications signal when the meter is idle. Meters that signal more often are usually set up in a ‘mesh network,’ which means they signal the central office and each other much more often. Alliant Energy is not using a mesh network.”

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