It’s no more than a hand in size, but it’s caused a storm throughout the province.
Last July, B.C. Hydro began installing smart meters on B.C. homes and businesses. The new digital meters send data through radiofrequency (RF) to the Crown corporation, providing it with real-time information on consumption use.
To date, 1.2 million devices have been put in place. By the end of the year, B.C. Hydro aims to have all 1.85 million of them running. It’s a move needed to keep up with technology, B.C. Hydro officials argue — a significant upgrade to a power grid that hasn’t been touched in half a century.
But while the corporation touts smart meters’ energy and cost savings, some B.C. residents are rallying to ban the devices from their properties.
Sharon Noble, director of the Coalition to Stop Smart Meters, is one. Noble doesn’t have wireless Internet, nor does she own a cell or cordless phone; she does everything possible to escape radiofrequency. Now, the smart-meter switch is forcing Noble to welcome the it into her house.
The coalition has collected more than 60 letters from doctors stating that their patients have health conditions that could be exacerbated by RF exposure from the meters. Beyond health concerns, Noble warns smart meters will lead to time-of-use billing, while not reducing people’s energy consumption.
“This is a breach of our human rights,” she said. “We believe B.C. Hydro has absolutely no right to come between a patient and a doctor.”
Mary McBride, a research scientist with the B.C. Cancer Agency, has been studying RF fields since the late 1990s. She was one of Canada’s top researchers who contributed to the international Interphone study which looked for links between cancer and cellphones.
On the electromagnetic spectrum, RFs fall below gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet rays and microwaves. Although they have enough energy to radiate — carry electromagnetic charges through space — they can’t penetrate cells and damage DNA, McBride said.
With the rise of cellphones, the first question posed to researchers was, “Do RFs have a heating effect, similar to microwaves?” When it was proven they didn’t, scientists moved onto the more complex query: “Are there any other effects resulting from prolonged exposure to RFs?”
Based on a wealth of studies and the conclusion of two big reviews published in the past six months, evidence is increasingly against the hypothesis that mobile phones, and therefore RFs, cause brain tumours in adults.
Of all the proposed mechanisms by which RF exposure could affect brain tumours, researchers did not achieve positive results in any experiment that could be replicated. The scientific community is now exploring whether RFs promote cancer. So far, no link has been found, McBride said.
“The risk from RF fields is not low or high — it is uncertain, whereas the risk from going outside without sunscreen is not only certain, it is high,” she said.
The amount of power smart meters use to transmit information via RFs is minuscule — 10 thousandths of a watt, said David Michelson, an University of British Columbia associate professor with the department of electrical and computer engineering.
“The physical effect this power has is almost undetectable,” he said. “The fact that we can actually send data and detect such small levels of signal is practically a miracle.”
Smart meters don’t transmit information as often as cellphones — hourly consumption information is sent to B.C. Hydro three times per day, for less than a minute in total, Michelson said. If you stood by a smart meter for 20 years, it’s the equivalent to a 30-minute cellphone call, according to an independent study.
Smart meters mark the first stage of giving consumers the power to monitor their power intake, Michelson said. The second stage involves “smart” appliances — dishwashers, dryers and other household devices that display their electricity consumption. The final component could involve hooking that information up to one’s personal computer or cellphone, allowing one to dictate their energy use from outside the home.
The two-way system and stream of consumption data opens the door to a slew of possibilities, Michelson said. In places such as California, power utilities have agreements with industrial consumers that allow them to remotely shut down certain equipment when power supply runs low. In return, the utility offers incentives.
“So what could happen five or 10 years from now is that customers could voluntarily, in return for rate reductions possibly, allow B.C. Hydro to change the temperatures of air conditioners, for example, which would reduce the overall power demand,” Michelson said.
The meter automation is worth approximately $222 million and is part of the $1.6 billion in savings that B.C. Hydro expects to achieve, said Cindy Verschoor, the power corporation’s manager of communications.
The meters will allow B.C. Hydro to detect power outages, rather than the current system that relies on customer phone calls. That saves crew time and speeds up the restoration of electricity, Verschoor said.
“One of our sister utilities in Texas, Centre Point, has reported a 97 per cent reduction in truck rolls with their new system,” she said.
It also becomes a two-way grid, making it easier for people to put power into the system. As more people implement solar and wind power on their properties, doing so gives them the chance to easily sell energy to B.C. Hydro. Meters come in handy as people move toward electric vehicles, Verschoor said, noting during power outages, the vehicles could be used to run home appliances.
But most importantly, the new system will reduce consumption and costs, Verschoor said. The system will provide B.C. Hydro with approximately 13,000 gigawatt hours of savings — the equivalent of 60 million barrels of oil.
“Energy and water are the two most sacred resources in the world,” Verschoor said. “I think anything that we can do to save electricity is a good thing, not only for British Columbians, but also it is very important for us to do our part.