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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Smart Grid

Cynthia Sue Larson

Cynthia Sue Larson

How the Precautionary Principle Can Save the Day

Like most Americans, I took only moderate notice of President Barack Obama’s announcement on October 27, 2009 of a $3.4 billion commitment to build something called the “smart grid.” My ears perked up when Obama spoke about how the new smart grid would be based on a clean energy economy, and I envisioned renewable energy sources powering every home. I love the idea of clean energy, and I imagined a future in which America’s clean energy leaders would be choosing energy sources and delivery systems that strive and succeed in doing good, or at least in doing no harm, as the word “clean” implies.

“The growth of clean energy can lead to the growth of our economy,” Obama announced, promising that 100 private companies, utilities, manufacturers, cities and others would soon be receiving grants of between $400,000 and $200 million each. This sense of fast forward action suited America’s recessionary times, and resistance was discouraged when Obama called for an “all hands on deck approach,” saying, “The closer we get to this new energy future, the harder the opposition is going to fight. It’s a debate between looking backwards and looking forward, between those who are ready to seize the future and those who are afraid of the future, and we know which side the United States of America has always come down on.”

Few details were explained at this initial presentation. Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change said, “The smart grid is something that has a transformational impact on how energy is delivered. This is about building more than just miles of wire, it’s about building… something that works.” Having something that works sounded promising, and at the time, I gave the smart grid no further thought.

Canary in the Coal Mine

I took no notice when smart meters were attached to my house in January 2010, without notification by my utility, nor my express permission. I didn’t notice that one by one, smart meters were being installed on homes to either side of mine, and all around my neighborhood. I didn’t notice that slowly but surely, my entire city was being outfitted with smart meters… until one day in October 2011 I wondered why I awoke each morning feeling dizzy, with nosebleeds, blurred vision, ringing in my ears, and migraine headaches. I wondered why when I was just sitting and watching TV or reading, my heart would often skip a beat, and bizarre muscle tremors would inexplicably spasm muscles on my face, arms, legs, and all over my body as if I’d just been given an invisible electric shock. When I spent ten days away from my home and away from smart meters in Maui, I was amazed at how much better I felt. Gone were all the symptoms which I’d been thinking might have been signs of sudden aging. When I returned home, all the aforementioned symptoms returned, and I wondered what could be causing them. In January 2012, a couple of months later, I caught strep throat and felt sicker than I’d ever been in my life. Unable to feel comfortable anywhere in the house, due to feelings of pain in my head, eyes, ears, heart, and all over my body I slept on the living room floor, and turned my full attention to the question of what, exactly, was making me feel so terribly sick.

When I looked up my symptoms, I was amazed to find that many of them matched what used to be known as “microwave sickness.” The first scientific report of microwave sickness appeared in 1974, with symptoms including: fatigue, headaches, palpitations, insomnia, skin symptoms, impotence and altered blood pressure. In cases of extreme exposure, symptoms also included: warming sensations, nausea, neuropathy (numbness, tingling, even paralysis in toes and fingers), stomach cramps, dyasthesia (a crushing sensation) and irritability. People in these studies had been accidentally exposed to microwave radiation, and no clear biological markers at that time were found, so these were not the kind of long-term studies that could establish safe exposure levels.

While I’ve never owned or used any kind of cell phone, WiFi has been installed in my home for the past decade, with the router running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at the opposite end of the house from where I sleep. I’ve worked with a wireless laptop computer for many years, many hours a day on this WiFi network with no problems or symptoms of any kind. Despite assurances from my local utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), that smart meters supposedly emitted much less radiation than cell phones and WiFi systems, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I felt much better when away from smart meters, and terribly sick when they were nearby.

I called and wrote to PG&E, asking them to immediately remove and replace the smart meters that were making me so sick on my home with the analog meters I’d had for years, with no problems. The PG&E spokesman I reached on the phone read rather woodenly from some kind of prewritten script, repeating over and over again how “smart meters are harmless.” I explained to him that I have a degree in physics from UC Berkeley, and am well aware that many kinds of radiation that we currently don’t have health standards or studies for are far from harmless, and that I was certain I am experiencing extremely negative effects from smart meters installed on my home. Eventually, this so-called “help” line staffer informed me that there was nothing I could do–there was no way (yet) to opt out.

A few weeks later, I attended and spoke at a public hearing of the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) in San Francisco. Dozens of people spoke about how they, too, have been adversely affected by smart meters, and I was shocked to hear reports of people who have become so electro hypersensitive that they are living in their cars. On the bright side, I was delighted to hear some good news–beginning in February 2012, California residents in Pacific Gas & Electric’s territories could opt out, for an initial price and an on-going monthly extra charge. This is not a neighborhood opt-out, but rather a house-by-house opt-out, and businesses are not allowed to request to keep the time-tested analog meters at this time.

At the beginning of February 2012, I requested a smart meter opt-out, and on February 8, 2012, the gas and electric smart meters on my home were replaced with analog meters. While I still hear ringing in my ears and have increased sensitivity to my computer that I never had before, I’m now sleeping well and no longer waking up with nosebleeds and migraine headaches… and the heart palpitations, muscle spasms and blurred vision are a thing of the past.

The Precautionary Principle

With the advent of exponential technological growth in recent years, environmentalists have advocated use of something known as the precautionary principle. The thinking goes that without some kinds of checks and balances, human creativity is bound to occasionally throw caution to the wind, with results we now recognize as being detrimental–regardless how wonderful we originally assumed the benefits of our ingenuity to be.

The idea behind the precautionary principle is that if an action or policy is suspected to risk causing harm to the public or the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action. This can be achieved through open communication with the community, who has a right to know complete information about possible known risks and issues. The burden to supply this information lies with the proponent of the new product or technology (not on the general public). Part of this open communication includes an alternatives assessment, with an obligation to examine a full range of alternatives (including doing nothing) before selecting the alternative with the least potential negative impact on human health and the environment. Full cost accounting is part of this assessment, with long-term benefits and costs (including health and environmental impact costs) included. The entire process is: transparent to the public, participatory, and informed with the best available information.

In some legal systems, such as within the European Union, application of the precautionary principle is a statutory requirement. The advantage of the precautionary principle for policy makers is that it reminds decision makers of their social responsibility to protect the public and the environment from harm whenever scientific investigation has found plausible risk. Only when scientific findings emerge providing solid evidence of no harm shall the wheels of progress roll forward.

It’s Not Too Late

While the city of San Francisco made the news in March 2003 by adopting the San Francisco Precautionary Principle Resolution, and again in June 2005 when San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed the Precautionary Purchasing Ordinance… not much of the precautionary principle has yet been seen in action in the United States.

Many people have stepped forward to acknowledge they have been adversely affected by electromagnetic fields, including some high-profile, well-educated professionals, such as Norway’s former prime minister, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland. Increasing numbers of scientists and doctors are speaking up about known and suspected dangers of the pulsed, non-ionizing microwave radiation emitted by smart meters. The World Health Organization (WHO) now lists such electromagnetic radiation as a Class B carcinogen, indicating that it is considered likely to be carcinogenic to humans, and there is increasingly clear evidence that this kind of radiation causes the brain-blood barrier to become leaky, in such a way that toxins are more easily carried into the brain.

With mounting questions from an increasingly concerned public wishing to know what is being installed in our homes, and interested in knowing what effects wireless smart meters have on ourselves, our children, our friends and our families, it’s time we hold policy makers accountable for ensuring that a democratic, truly transparent decision-making process is taking place with respect to smart meters. The current “Ready-Fire!-Aim” approach to rolling-out wireless smart meters for the smart grid is negatively affecting human health and the environment.

Just as we recognized the proverbial “writing on the wall” with regard to technological wonders of their times: Agent Orange, Asbestos, CFCs, Diethylstilbestrol (DES), Dioxin, DDT, lead paint, and Thalidomide… it’s time for us to stop, wait for results from current scientific studies, do a thorough job gathering all relevant wireless smart meter information, engage in open dialogue all involved communities, and take a careful look at what role we really want wireless smart meters to have in our world today. If smart meters are harming increasing numbers of people, we potentially have a huge ticking time bomb on our hands… one that is leaving few habitable places left on Earth for growing numbers of individuals who have less and less tolerance for modern day  electrosmog.

Now is the time for each of us to contact our local government leaders at every level, and ask the simple question, “How can we best ensure that we’re truly moving toward a clean energy future?” When the government and corporations don’t adequately answer this question, it’s up to we the people to make certain this matter is properly addressed.


Why We Need Open and Free “Smart” Meter Opt-Out

Cynthia Sue Larson

Why turn our homes into large microwave appliances,
even if the constant always-on setting may be a lower one?

While only an estimated 8% of the population reportedly notice physical health issues related to wireless so-called “smart” meters (smeters), increasing numbers of people are concerned about other smeter problems. To mention a few: Forbes magazine pointed out how smeters are a great deal for utilities and a raw deal for consumers; CBS news and other media have widely reported over-charging smeters; Wired Magazine reported unacceptable security holes in smeter networks; the Denver Post described privacy issues; Security Week investigated smeter safety issues; and an international physician’s group is calling for a halt to installation of wireless smeters, due to health risks. The ever-increasing body of evidence suggests energy consumers should have the right to opt-out from smeters, and the fact that these individuals were never advised of the risks nor did they consent to have smeters installed makes it clear that such opt-outs be free of charge.

So-called “Smart” Meters (smeters) Aren’t “Green”
Though safer technologies are readily available to create a smart grid, this one’s a sweet financial deal for PG&E. We customers pay all conversion costs, already $2.2 billion (roughly $250 per meter) bringing PG&E an immediate profit of $300+ million. PG&E makes phony greenwashing claims about the meters encouraging conservation, but when you factor in the extra energy needed to broadcast all these pulses night and day, the program will actually likely cause a net increase in our overall carbon footprint. And the meters aren’t bi-directional, so they can’t be used for net metering for folks who have their own rooftop solar installations. Also, what is the likelihood that people will make toast at midnight when it’s cheaper instead of for breakfast, assuming that they get a meter on their toaster to measure energy use first, and then look it up on their computer?  Timed metering need not be wireless, and it is cheaper to install using existing infrastructure (such as phone landlines) which would also minimize privacy concerns.
(Smart Meters: Not So Sharp For ConsumersForbes 21Oct 2009, )

Smeters Over-Charge
There have been reports of more than 50,000 inaccurate smeters to date that PG&E has acknowledged. There have been numerous cases of customers being overbilled, some charged even 1,000 times their former rates. In one observed smeter defect, some Pacific Gas and Electric Co. smeters overcharged customers when they become too hot, sometimes misreading electricity usage when their internal temperature goes over 100 degrees.
(Overheated PG&E SmartMeters Overcharge Customers, CBS, 3 May 2011
(PG&E admits to Smeter Billing Errors, offers scant refund )

Smeters Present Unacceptable Security Risks
A top cybersecurity firm recently tested five different brands of smeters for vulnerabilities, and found that they all could be easily hacked into, allowing someone to remotely shut down your power, inflate your bills, tell if you’re out-of-town (making you a target for burglary), commit identity theft, or even bring down the whole electricity grid. An article in Wired magazine sums up security risks neatly when it says, “The country’s swift deployment of smart-grid technology has security professionals concerned that utilities and smart-meter vendors are repeating the mistakes made in the rollout of the public internet, when security became a priority only after malicious attacks had reached mass levels. But when it comes to the power grid, the costs of remote hack attacks are potentially more dramatic. `The cost factor here is what’s turned on its head. We lose control of our grid, that’s far worse than a botnet taking over my home PC,’ said Matthew Carpenter.
(Security Pros Question Deployment of Smart MetersWired, 4 Mar 2010, )

Smeters Violate Rights to Privacy
While most of us likely feel we have nothing to hide, and trust our government and utility corporations, we would also be safe to assume that whatever rights to privacy we give away now, we give up for good. As the following article from the Denver Post explains, “Once a smart meter is attached to a home, it can gather a lot more data than just how much electricity a family uses.  It can tell how many people live in the house, when they get up, when they go to sleep and when they aren’t home. It can tell how many showers they take and loads of laundry they do. How often they use the microwave. How much television they watch and what kind of TV they watch it on.”
(New Electricity Grids May Be Smart, but Not So PrivateDenver Post, 18 May 2010 )

Smeters Adversely Affect People’s Health and Well-being
Many people noticed that after smeters were installed in their homes they began suffering from symptoms including: constant ringing in the ears, hearing impairment, nausea and headaches, difficulty sleeping, muscle spasms and twitches, vision impairment, and constant extreme pain. Some home-owners suffering these symptoms have been driven from their homes to live in their vehicles. Given the extreme affect smeters have on some people, it is reasonable to deduce that smeters are harming all of us somehow. This is an unacceptable risk, according to the international physician’s group, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM), who have called for an immediate halt to installation of wireless smeters.
(Santa Cruz Health Officer Discloses Findings on Smart Meters, KSBW News, 24 Jan 2012 )
(International Physicians’ Group Calls Halt to Wireless Smart Meters,
East County Magazine, 24 Jan 2012 )

Smeters Are Unsafe
There are safety issues related to smeters, such smeters failing and starting fires or exploding. Also, in a recent official filing, PG&E confirmed its smeters can damage customers’ sensitive electronics. The new smeter is effectively a remote control device in charge of your house or business, allowing PG&E the option of unilaterally rationing or cutting power to a property when the corporation deems it useful for their purposes, regardless of potential life-threatening consequences for some customers.
(Smart Meters Interfering With Home ElectronicsSecurity Week, 23 Nov 2011 )
(Smeter Fires/Explosions,

Smeters Are Illegal
Laws which were originally written to protect consumers and allow us choices have been twisted to protect the interests of profiteering utility corporations that harm the public interest. The California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) does not actually have a right to mandate `smart’ meter installation. The law protects us from forced installation, Martinot finds: “We need to be calling for the PUC to obey the law, to stop being a law-breaking agency.”
(Smart Meters Are Illegal: A Nitty-Gritty Analysis,  5 Dec 2011, )

Smeters Eliminate Outdoor Jobs While Lining Utilities Pockets
Most meter readers prefer outdoor work to the temporary replacement office work energy utilities offer. Energy utilities are not passing on their remote meter reading cost savings to their customers, but instead pocket the difference as meter reading jobs are eliminated, replaced by automated systems.

The California Public Utilities Commission invites public feedback on the issue of “smart” meters at:

Cynthia and canine companion

Feeling motivated to speak up and make a positive difference? This is a great time to make your voice heard and share your thoughts!

Love always,
Cynthia Sue Larson
email Cynthia at

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Wikipedia: cbs definition: Columbia Broadcasting System.

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