Smart Meters, Dumb Resistance

By Chris Mooney | February 3, 2011 2:19 pm

Okay, so this is annoying: People are resisting smart meters in California because they don’t understand electromagnetism and think they’re going to be hurt in some way by a device that sends a wireless signal. Here’s the New York Times:

The health concerns about the smart meters focus on the phenomenon known as “electromagnetic hypersensitivity,” or E.H.S., in which people claim that radiation from cellphones, WiFi systems or smart meters causes them to suffer dizziness, fatigue, headaches, sleeplessness or heart palpitations. (At a recent Public Utilities Commission hearing on smart meters, an audience member requested that all cellphones be turned off as a gesture to the electrosensitive people in the audience.)

The two most recent government reviews of available research found no link between health problems and common levels of electromagnetic radiation. Both reports indicated that more research would be welcome; on that basis, opponents say the meters should not be installed until they are proved safe.

Proved safe? I like the precautionary principle, applied reasonably. But because you can never vanquish all uncertainty in science, it’s not applied reasonably in cases where there’s 1) no evidence of harm, 2) no plausible theory about why harm ought to occur, 3) substantial benefits to be sacrificed if the PP gets applied.

And in this case, smart meters are a revolutionary technology that will go a long way towards greening our energy system and saving us money. They have a ton of benefits.

Grist has much more about why alleged “health” complaints about smart meters don’t add up. And the article ends with a reasonable solution: People who really think their smart meter is damaging them ought to be able to opt out. But they shouldn’t be able to hold everyone else back.


Comments (10)

  1. I love NorCal, but it sounds like some of the same areas that have been protesting WiFi and not vaccinating their kids. So this is not really about the science or technology, it’s part of a bigger problem.

  2. Max Wilmarth

    Yes, its a peculiar form of ignorance. We are bathed 24/7 in an invisible natural electromagnetic flood from the sun and worldwide lightning storms. Unless you live or work next door to a TV/radio transmitter you are not getting much exposure. I do think people should be able to opt out of smart meters for any reason, but they’ll need to pay extra for a utility guy to drive out to the house and read the analog meter once a month.

    The NorCal vaccine thing is really weird. Ultimately I think it will take some kids dying for people to get over this.

  3. There’s another aspect to this resistance I find more interesting and it’s about privacy. What do you make of concerns that smart meters might betray too much info? The actual harm may pale compared to other privacy intrusions but it seems to strike a nerve because it’s in the home–a man’s home being his castle and what not. As the Energy tech (ET) and Info Tech (IT) worlds merge, seems to me privacy concerns are important. (This also emerged in DOT’s (later aborted) discussion of a vehicle- miles-traveled approach to replace gas taxes. People didn’t like the idea of having their travel tracked.)

  4. Chris Mooney

    @3 Hey Jeff, I think privacy concerns are separate. They may well be valid. But the science based concerns are the ones that immediately triggered my ire…and I guess I’d want to treat them as completely separate. It’s much similar to how I would differentiate between 1) human health concerns about eating GMO foods, which lack evidence; and 2) concerns about environmental contamination from GMO crops, which may be more valid.

  5. Marion Delgado

    Chris, your statement of the limits and strengths of the precautionary principle is very good and quotable.

  6. Chris Mooney

    Thanks Marion. I’ve been annoyed about misuses of the precautionary principle on the left *and* misguided attacks on it by libertarians for some time. hopefully that’s a short form, sane view on how it should be used.

  7. There will always be folk who panic when they walk through a spider web and others that believe canned food is poisoned. That’s life. But the point of this ongoing drama with smart meters is that people refuse to be suckered into accepting that merely deploying smart meters does them a heap of good – it doesnt IMHO.
    Smart meter networks assist the industry ten times more than users. You dont for one second need smart meters to make energy visible or empower users to know how to reduce energy waste and energy congestion. The trick is getting people to step up, use the old grey matter and to inform them about a wide selection of tools they can use for themselves. @wiszniak

  8. SilenceIsGolden

    Chris, believe it or not, but that’s almost the exact same argument some people start raising in Europe in order to resist the mandatory phasing-out of incandescent light bulbs! They claim that CFLs emit too much e-smog. I wouldn’t be surprised if those people write those complaints on laptops connected by wi-fi, with their microwaves running, their mobile phones attached to their ears, and possibly even still having radio-alarms in their bedrooms… And instead of switching to LEDs, they demand their “good old” incandescent heater-bulbs back.
    I, for once, would like to ask them how they compare their “e-smog” to the danger of nuclear power plants…

  9. Max Wilmarth

    I have a hard time with the outlawing of incandescent bulbs. They are inefficient, sure, and I have replaced almost all of mine at this point with CFLs. But CFLs are not a perfect substitution. They don’t generally work well with dimmer switches and older timed switches. And from a free society standpoint, shouldn’t we be able to choose? Would we be willing to ban French wine or Belgian beer because the government (rightly) says we make a product just a good here without shipping glass bottles across the ocean? That’s not supposed to be a rhetorical question – I’m really asking.

  10. RobertWilliams


    And Insurance companies don’t sacrifice insurance premiums ($$) for nothing.

    VIDEO: Insurance Companies Won’t Insure Wireless Device Health Risks (3 minutes, 13 seconds)

    B. CALIFORNIA HAS INSTALLED ALMOST SEVEN MILLION WIRELESS SMART METERS AND UTILITY BILLS HAVE SKYROCKETED (no bills decrease, some increase less if you work you tail off and live without power.)

    VIDEO-Skyrocketing Utility Bills after Wireless smart meter installation (3 minutes, 19 seconds)


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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