By the end of this year, more than 52 million smart meters are planned to be installed in the United States. These devices track near-real-time electricity use, transmit that data back to the power company via wireless network, and can enable smart-grid innovations like variable electricity rates and friendly neighborhood energy-efficiency competitions. Smart meters also allow people who produce their own juice through solar panels to monitor what they're sending into the grid and get paid for it. John Farrell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance calls the meters "a tremendous opportunity for people to be more energy efficient."
Yet in many places smart meters are being greeted with lawsuits, petition drives, and tinfoil—the latter used to prevent the devices from transmitting. Consumers in places like Dallas and Bakersfield, California, have claimed that the meters overcharge them, while some Tea Party activists believe them to be a United Nations plot. "The real job of smart meters is to spy on you and control when you can and cannot use electrical appliances," charged Cher McCoy, a Lexington, Virginia, Tea Partier in February.
Opposition is also strong on the left. In liberal enclaves like California's Marin County, some worry about the radio frequency radiation the meters emit and complain of nausea, fatigue, and headaches. Others cite possible long-term risks of brain cancer and leukemia. Some objections have elements of plausibility. One utility company discovered that its meters, when overheated, overcharged customers, and the Energy Department's inspector general found that many utilities didn't adequately protect the grid—or customers' private data—from hackers or a cyber attack. And while most of us get far more exposure from our cellphones and wi-fi networks than we would from smart meters, they do emit radio frequency radiation in short, powerful bursts. In addition, for the network to work, a few meters must act as relays, sending data from as many as a thousand others and using a more powerful signal to do so.
The American Academy of Environmental Medicine opposes them on the grounds that "chronic exposure to wireless radio frequency radiation is a preventable environmental hazard that is sufficiently well documented to warrant immediate preventative public health action." (The group, it should be noted, also opposes fluoridated water.) David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany's School of Public Health, says that the health risk from a smart meter probably depends on how close it is to your bed or your easy chair. But he also suggests weighing that risk against those from dirty energy, an archaic grid, and climate change: infectious disease, lung damage, famine, heatstroke, fire, and flood. "In terms of a body count," Carpenter says, "that's orders of magnitude more significant."
—Dashka Slater / Illustration by Chris Gash