Health and the smart grid

Message from EDF President Fred Krupp

July 20, 2011

Thank you for sharing your concerns about the use of wireless smart meters. At Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), we appreciate the vigilance and passion that you and others have put into understanding the potential health risks associated with radio frequency (RF) exposure.

For several years, EDF has championed a modernization of the U.S. electric grid that makes use of wireless smart meters to keep better track of power use, in order to help people and utilities find ways to:

  • reduce overall and peak demand;
  • eliminate huge waste in the system; and
  • enable significantly greater use of clean, renewable energy, non-polluting electric vehicles, and community-based resources.

Smart meters are key to realizing these benefits, because they allow for two-way, real-time communication that gives households and utilities the data they need to cut usage and costs.

That said, two things happened in the spring of 2011 that led EDF to reexamine the meters’ wireless technology.

First, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO) reviewed available research on cell phones, which use radio frequencies (RF) similar to smart meters, but at much higher levels of exposure. The agency identified cell phone use as “possibly carcinogenic,” noting that “there could be some risk, and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between cell phones and cancer risk.” Pending the availability of such evidence, the agency recommends “pragmatic measures to reduce exposure,” such as holding the cell phone further from the ear or using hands-free devices.

Second, a small number of activist groups and individuals -- some of them EDF members and supporters -- aggressively raised the issue, criticizing EDF for buying into what they consider a dangerous technology. They have posted their concerns on this website, which, as of 7/20/2011, argued not just that smart meters pose an unacceptable health hazard, but also that EDF is intentionally ignoring data that demonstrates the hazard.

We take seriously the concerns that have been raised, and we took a second look. We have examined the data provided by the WHO and by smart meter critics. Neither the WHO reports nor the independent research cited by critics explicitly addresses smart meters; they are focused on cell phones, microwave ovens and other emitters of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) at various frequencies, including extremely low frequencies (ELFs).

Since smart meters are also RF emitters, it's rational to worry that if cell phones might pose a health risk, smart meters might do so as well. The burden of proof is quite rightly on those who claim smart meters are safe, not on those who worry that they might be dangerous. So we studied the WHO report and the independent EMF/RF research to try to determine what light they shed on the safety of the smart meter technology.

One of those reports, published by the California Council of Science and Technology (CCST) in 2010, included findings from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) that a person 10 feet from a smart meter would experience only a small fraction of the RF exposure – 250 to 1,250 times less – that they would be exposed to using a cell phone. This study assumed that the smart meter was transmitting constantly, but in fact smart meters send signals only intermittently, far less often than cell phones, baby monitors or the wireless networks that are now commonplace in homes and businesses.

Since this is not a field where EDF has a great deal of expertise, we also consulted with experts outside EDF — not just experts committed (as we are) to the development of smart power grids, but also experts who are much more focused on the dangers of EMFs and RFs. One of the health experts we talked to was Dr. Leeka Kheifets, PhD, Professor in Residence at UCLA, Epidemiology, who sits on the Standing Committee on Epidemiology for the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection. Our meeting with Dr. Kheifets helped inform our position that the limited RF exposure levels associated with smart meters should not result in reduced support for the smart grid. Whether or not future studies find the overall RF problem to be significant, smart meters are a very small part of that problem. At the same time, the smart grid brings great environmental benefits: reduced greenhouse gases, reduced burning of fossil fuels and enhanced integration of solar and wind power.

The smart grid can also save thousands of lives. People who are more focused on human health than on environmental sustainability also have compelling reasons to support the smart grid. The smart grid can cut air pollution from the electric utility sector as much as 30% by 2030. That would reduce what is now the tragedy of more than 34,000 deaths a year from power plant pollution, more lives than are lost on U.S. highways. Dirty air also worsens asthma and lung disease, especially among children and the elderly, with more than 18 million acute respiratory symptoms annually.

Even though we have very strong evidence that the use of smart meters and the smart grid can make a substantial contribution to protecting and enhancing human health, EDF would certainly change its position if strong enough evidence surfaced concluding that RFs emitted by smart meters — the wireless ones, at least were doing substantial health damage.

People who believe that smart meters are doing substantial damage are right to share their views, as aggressively as they choose. We have listened hard, reexamined the evidence and decided that the case for smart meters is still very much stronger than the case against them. Those who still don’t agree will rightly keep pushing us. We promise to keep listening, keep reexamining the evidence and remain ready to alter our position if we think the evidence warrants it.

Utility customers in California — particularly those of Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) — have been among the most vocal expressing concerns about the health impacts of wireless meters. PG&E responded by proposing an opt-out option that is being considered by California’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC). EDF strongly supports customers having the choice and ability to opt out, especially those who have been diagnosed with electromagnetic hypersensitivity and are particularly concerned about RF.

Utilities, the smart grid industry and regulators must protect customers’ health. And protecting health is a key goal of EDF’s smart grid work. EDF does not advocate merely any smart grid; we advocate a smart grid done right. Our role is to advise utilities and PUCs on how to design smart grid investments that deliver maximum environmental and public health benefits to the people they serve, including clean air, protected water and land and a stable climate, by radically reducing harmful pollution.

The WHO assessment spotlights the importance of scientific research in evaluating environmental and health problems, a core principle of Environmental Defense Fund. EDF policies are based on the best available science and are altered as necessary when new evidence comes to light. EDF supports continued research on the possible health effects of RFs from smart meters. Though this hasn’t been at the forefront of our efforts, letters like yours remind us that we have a special obligation to ensure that health effects research continues. We promise to make this a higher priority in our future smart grid work and we invite you to check back in the months and years ahead to make sure we have done so.

Based on the issues raised by people such as you and by the WHO report, EDF is now calling for utilities and regulators to commit to a regular review of the latest RF science and explore all options to limit exposure to EMFs from smart meters. EDF strongly supports efforts to address public concerns proactively.

Utilities and regulators nationwide might, as in California, consider an opt-out provision that lets customers turn off the chip that transmits data (leaving the option for a future resident to turn the transmitter back on). They might also give serious consideration to alternative communication networks, such as broadband, or the power lines themselves, to carry data, although those options present their own challenges.

In sum, in EDF’s judgment, the health risk from smart meters is probably, though not certainly, small. Such a risk would be unacceptable unless smart meters carried substantial, provable benefits.

Can we show that the benefits of smart meters are substantial? Yes. With prudent implementation, informed by the best research, the nation’s smart grid will deliver cleaner air, reduced deaths and illnesses from air pollution, more reliable electric power and greater consumer control over electric power and costs.

Here’s proof from around the country:

  • In Oklahoma, communities are benefiting from the Positive Energy smart grid, thanks to which they won't need to build any new fossil-fueled power plants until 2020 or beyond.
  • In Utah, the Cool Keeper demand-response program has delivered more than 100 megawatts of peak demand load reduction, which represents the combined output of roughly seven peaking power plants, including oil-burning plants with some of the highest emissions rates in the state.
  • In Washington, DC, the vast majority of customers in the smart meter pilot program saved money and reduced summer peak demand in response to energy use information and pricing.

Nationwide, the smart grid will help eliminate the need for up to 2,000 dirty, inefficient peak power plants, along with the polluting coal mines and gas fields that supply them.

Critics of EDF's smart grid advocacy have charged that we are getting paid for our advocacy. The simple truth is: We aren't. We accept no funding from the utilities or manufacturers involved in the smart grid. The sole exception is Intervener Compensation mandated by the California Public Utility Commission, which is paid by utilities to certain nonprofit groups, including EDF, as compensation for the costs of intervening in state regulatory proceedings.

EDF remains indebted to those who are watching closely and engaging us and others on this important issue. Your advocacy helped inspire the reexamination reported here. We welcome the opportunity to speak with anyone who would like to discuss our smart grid efforts further.

For more information, please see EDF’s “What Consumers Need to Know about the Smart Grid and Smart Meters” fact sheet here.


Fred Krupp
EDF President