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Australasian ScienceWill your smart meter make you less smart?

Smart electricity meters are back in the news. The idea of smart meters seems like a good one, as monitoring use at frequent intervals has the possibility of smoothing consumption, thereby reducing the need for generating capacity, and reducing consumer costs by education about patterns of use and misuse of electricity at individual locations.

Nothing seems to happen in our society without objections, and objections and comments are coming from several directions. I'll apply a skeptical magnifying glass to a few of these.

The roll-out of smart meters is costing a lot of money and is not happening as quickly as predicted. It seems inevitable in any democracy that when the government changes from one political party to another the incoming politicians find that some huge project started by the previous government is a useless waste of money on which too much has been spent so far and which is running behind schedule. The standard examples in Australia are integrated, multi-modal public transport ticketing systems. Sometimes, but rarely, the projects are abandoned, but the usual practice is to loudly blame the predecessors and then apply the Concorde Fallacy, which is that the money spent so far would be wasted if the project were to be stopped now. (The name is derived from the decision to continue development of the Concorde aeroplane even after it had become obvious that it could never be commercially viable without huge and continuing government subsidies.) The fact that estimating time and costs for very large projects is not an exact art was probably known to the Egyptian engineers who built the pyramids but is rediscovered after every second election. As an aside, the Sydney Opera House was delivered ten years later than the target date at fourteen times the original estimated cost. Sometimes the strategy works.

Cost to consumers
It is perfectly reasonable for consumers to fear that they will have to pay for the replacement of existing meters which seem to be doing the job quite well now, thank you. Similar objections have been raised to the possible cost of connecting to the National Broadband Network when the fibre rolls past the end of the street. Only a suicidal government would announce that everyone in the country was going to have to pay directly for something they might not think they need but we all know that they are going to do it anyway. Paranoia about government isn't limited to libertarians.

There are two aspects to objections about effectiveness. One is that there is no proof in advance that smart meters are going to reduce consumers' electricity bills or the need for more generating capacity. This is the same sort of fallacious thinking that drives objections to health and education initiatives – prove the theoretical results before starting. The second objection comes from climate change deniers who say that there is no need to spend anything on reducing electricity consumption because it's all based on a hoax so it doesn't matter if the meters are effective or not.

I mentioned paranoia. I have seen people objecting to the meters because they will supply some authority with detailed patterns of electricity consumption rather than just the gross amount used over a quarter. These patterns will allow the government (or someone even more sinister) to look too closely at how and when people turn on the lights, and there will be people with ID badges turning up at the front door demanding that you stop leaving the air conditioner on when you are out of the house and asking questions about the hydroponic garden in the closet. I assume that these complainers don't use credit cards to pay for the Internet connections they use to post rants to Facebook from non-obscured IP addresses. They've all seen NCIS so they also turn their mobile phones off and take out the batteries when they aren't using them. And they never drive on toll roads.

Speaking of mobile phones, the same fears are expressed about radiation from the wireless networks used to connect the meters and collect the data from them. I've seen one web site which compared the danger of smart meters to that of home Wi-Fi networks. If I was the worrying kind this would worry me because although I'm sitting about fifteen metres from my network access point transmitter (and about 200 metres from a mobile phone tower), I'm only about a metre from the cabinet on the wall of my house. Inverse square law and all that. Oh, sorry, I digressed into a bit of science there. I've written here before about the mobile phone radiation scare so there's no need to go over it again, but I think the major health risk from smart meters is that the workers fitting them will get bitten by spiders.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the December 2012 edition of Australasian Science
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