Smart meters, the digital, wireless versions of analog electrical meters, are quickly making meter readers a thing of the past. If you live in Ventura County, there is a good chance that you already have a smart meter, a fact that concerns many residents.

Corix Utilities, a subcontractor of Southern California Edison (SCE), began installing smart meters last month as an integral part of a nationwide plan by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to develop a smart grid. According to the DOE, the smart grid, which would be replacing the current grid that was originally developed in the 1890s, would improve efficiency and facilitate a more environmentally friendly approach to electricity transmission.

SCE officials said that customers will be provided with more specific energy use information, which they expect to result in less energy consumption, especially during peak hours. “By using less energy, customers can reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and smog-forming pollutants,” said SCE officials.

Smart meters use radio frequency (RF) radiation, or radio waves, to communicate energy usage information to the power company. RF radiation is a type of electromagnetic radiation, similar in frequency to cell phones, microwaves and wireless routers.

Ross Stein, a Ventura County resident involved with the Occupy Ventura movement, said he is concerned that the smart meters may have unknown health effects. “In my particular apartment building, there are 12 of them clustered together on a wall that’s maybe five inches thick right behind my and my neighbor’s head, where we lay our heads and sleep,” said Stein. “I don’t tape 20 cell phones to my head and go to sleep at night.”

Signal frequency is not the only thing to consider when evaluating the exposure effects of RF radiation. Power density, commonly called signal strength, is also key information when assessing potential effects on human health. According to a report put out by the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) in April of 2011, the power density of smart meters is significantly less than cell phones, though the frequency is similar (as shown on p. 30).

The duration and the distance from the signal are also important factors when gauging RF exposure. According to the SCE website, the smart meter transmits only a few minutes every hour, making the duty cycle (the amount of time the device is actually transmitting) less than 5 percent. Data in the CCST report is based on a 50 percent duty cycle, meaning that the smart meter would be transmitting half the time and receiving half the time, which is the maximum-use case. Though currently the duty cycle is much lower, as stated in the CCST report, “Theoretically, the transmit time could increase substantially beyond today’s actual operation level if new applications and functionality are added.”

Theoretical smart meter RF levels are well below FCC standards. Many people, however, including Rae Amey, a Ventura County resident and developmental consultant for Rae Amey Enterprises Inc., feel that the FCC standards are outdated and need revision. “Those standards are really old,” said Amey. “Standards change. … We have to be flexible and open.”

Amey has personally been investigating electromagnetic current in the body for several years. Amey said she worries that smart meters may be adding to the problem already created by cell phones and other RF devices. “It’s not necessarily the smart meters by themselves, it’s the cumulative saturation of electromagnetic waves,” said Amey. “If there are any health effects, this saturation is the problem.”

Amey said she worries that RFs in the range of smart meters may have a similar effect on human biology as extremely low frequency radiation that some studies have suggested can affect signaling in certain biological systems, an issue that remains highly debated in the scientific community. The frequencies referred to in the studies, however, refer to a considerably lower frequency than those emitted by smart meters and cell phones.

Although the health effects of nonthermal RF radiation are under investigation by several research groups, according to the CCST report, there is currently no conclusive evidence linking non-thermal RF radiation exposure to human health risks. The report also states, “Due to the recent nature of the technology, impacts of long-term exposure are not known.”

“I’m not saying that new technology is bad, as far as these smart meters and all that. …  There’s just not been enough testing on this stuff yet,” said Stein. “We’re surrounded by microwaves anyway. I don’t feel the need to subject myself to a concentrated amount of them.”

Health concerns are not the only hot topic in the smart meter debate. “Also, there’s the right to privacy,” said Stein. “It’s a data collection information device. They can tell when you’re home, they can tell when you’re not home by the usage of your electricity.”

According to the SCE website, though smart meters are capable of communicating time-of-day energy usage information, the data communicated is nonspecific to what type of appliance is using the energy. In addition, “All information transmitted between the customer meters and the utility is encrypted using U.S. Government-approved and -recommended standards,” said SCE officials.

Soon there may be a way to opt out of having a smart meter installed at your home if you live at a private residence. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) will be voting on April 19 on a proposal to give the opt-out option to residents, but at a cost. According to the CPUC website, if approved, residents choosing to opt out of smart-meter installation could do so for an initial fee of $75 and a monthly charge of $10 (Qualified California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) residents would have a reduced fee of $10 initially and a $5 monthly charge.)

Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett said he has heard from several residents who oppose the installation of smart meters. “I believe that people should have a choice in the matter,” said Bennett.  “If they have personal objections, for whatever reason, to smart meters, they should not be forced to have one on their home against their will.”

In response to alarmed Ventura County residents who object to the mandatory installation of smart meters, on March 27, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted to send a letter to the CPUC pressing it to adopt a provision that would allow residents to opt out of smart-meter installation at no cost. The letter was sent days after the board hearing.

“Right now you can choose not to have a cell phone, you can choose not to have a laser printer in your office or in your home, or you can put it somewhere where you can get away from it,” said Amey. “If you’re in a community where these meters are going night and day on forever, you have absolutely no choice.”

If you do not have a smart meter currently installed and would like to opt out of installation you can call 1-800-810-2369 to be placed on a delay list, which will postpone your installation, pending the CPUC decision regarding the opt out option on April 19. According to the SCE website, if you want to opt out but you already have a smart meter, you may be out of luck, at least until the decision is made.