On Smart Meters
One of the questions that has gone unanswered during city council’s recent smart meter debate has been this: why does DTE want to install these things anyway?
Currently, my house in Sterling Heights suffers several power outages a year. Most are of short duration — maybe 30 seconds or less. But a few notable ones have taken place in the past ten years that have gone on for much longer than that. In August, 2003, as many will recall, our area was involved in the blackout that affected much of the east coast for three days. Just this past year, we had a local outage in the neighborhood which caused two thousand dollar’s worth of damage to equipment inside our house because of the associated power surge. That outage went on for a number of hours, posing a risk to the health of our oxygen-using neighbor with each minute it continued.
As the electrical grid continues to age, power utility companies like DTE face enormous challenges in maintaining acceptable service. Chances are the transformer up on the pole behind your house or in the power box in your front yard is more than twenty years old, as are the copper power lines that attach it to the high-tension feeds coming from DTE. This equipment does not age gracefully: copper is subject to corrosion, transformers withstand tremendous thermal and electrical loads, and connections are impacted by trees which didn’t exist when the wiring was installed, but are now reaching full maturity. Add in Michigan’s climate of ice storms and heavy snows in the wintertime, along with hot, humid summers capable of producing violent storms, and our situation represents one of the more extreme climates for electrical power delivery in the nation.
In the meantime, power utility companies are licensed monopolies, which means that they are subject to political, rather than market forces in control of the rates which they are allowed to charge. Copper prices, in case you haven’t noticed, have rocketed skyward, making additional, needed power lines extremely expensive. Permits to install new high-tension power lines are hotly contested by residents concerned about EMF and the associated eyesore. Our nation’s aging power plants are well beyond their designed life cycle, yet permits to build new ones, even at exorbitant costs, are hard to obtain. Labor and the associated health insurance costs have continued to rise with inflation. Despite the fact that these companies are monopolies, they struggle to remain profitable and to keep their workers employed.
As with much of Sterling Heights’ infrastructure, electrical power delivery is reaching a critical point. Chances are you have a generator in your shed or garage, or your neighbor does. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when the grid was far newer, less utilized, and much more reliable, the need for such equipment was far lower. Today the fact that more people have this equipment for emergencies is an indication that the electrical service is less reliable.
Your house’s electrical wiring in the 1970s was typically rated for 100-amp service. Today’s housing boasts double that capacity and more to deal with the ever-increasing household electrical load. By contrast, in the 1950’s, when much of the Greater Detroit area’s current power grid was first being built, homes typically had 60-amp service. With the baby boomer generation approaching the age where it will need durable medical equipment in the home, we can expect power needs to continue to increase.
All of it boils down to this: the power companies like DTE have to find a way to maximize the existing infrastructure’s use because a wholesale replacement is not financially possible. They need the ability to see where the largest demand is occurring in near real-time and to respond to outages of over-stressed, aged equipment as quickly as possible. They also need the ability to steer usage to lower-peak hours of the day to minimize the stress on the infrastructure, and the only way to do that is to create price incentives which can only be realized with time-of-day consumption data that a smart meter can provide.
There is no scientific basis for the claim of health risks posed by smart meters. No reputable, independent organization has produced peer-reviewed science classifying EMF radiation as a known hazard to human beings. There is also little justification for the privacy concerns voiced by opponents who each come to city council meetings equipped with a smartphone capable of literally tracking their every move.
To conclude, with no legitimate health or privacy concerns, it is my opinion that the city should not get in the way as DTE attempts to do what it can to mitigate the problems caused by our city’s aging electrical infrastructure. We need the improvements this technology can bring.