“Smart” Meters – Are They Really a Wise Investment For Seattle?

Fact Checking City Light’s Claims about the supposed “Benefits to Customers” regarding Advanced Metering (AMI).

Seattle City Light claims that Advance Metering will:

     1. “Empower customers to make energy saving choices.” Studies from the Free University in Brussels have concluded that even under best case scenarios, energy savings are only in the range of 2-4% and that “consumers are not the main beneficiaries of this technology.” Modern humans are awash in information. Our email inboxes are perennially overflowing. We get robo-calls, junk mail, and are forever being asked to take surveys at the end of phone calls.

     When it comes to energy use, people seem disinclined to analyze their home energy usage patterns and in many cases, they have little choice regarding when they run their appliances. Industry green-washed hype projecting exaggerated energy savings do not even begin to justify the significant cost increases most individuals will be saddled with. One time equipment fees for more digital junk and time-of-use billing practices would see our electrical bill increasing dramatically if we allow City Light to go forward with their “smart” meter plans. See also our page on Cost.

     2. “Improve customer service”. City Light claims that “smart” meters will help them pinpoint power outages more quickly. This claim is not supported by the latest industry data. In a 2015 utility industry survey, only 12% of utility power outages during storms were reported via “smart” meters. Customer phone calls were the source of power outage notification 54% of the time. In other words, the hundreds of millions of dollars that Seattle rate payers would be forced to cough up to swallow this “upgrade” isn’t justified. The technology isn’t needed.

      Stating “customer service” as a benefit is not only not true when analyzing the actual data, it is also invalidated by the much greater inevitable harms caused by “smart” meters (fire, privacy, cost, grid security, health, environment).

     “Customer service” is also negated by another emerging issue – customer overbilling. Customer complaints regarding “smart” meter overbilling are on the rise globally. Data from one state alone (Maryland) obtained via a public information records request, show thousands of overbilling complaints from customers.

     And what about those customers who don’t want a “smart” meter? We would be forced to pay a monthly opt out fee in order to pay for a meter reader, whereas before, this service used to be free. If “smart” meters are really so smart, why not make them opt-in instead of opt out? If the benefits are so wonderful, why not trust individuals to make this decision for themselves rather than have it forced down their throat? City Light’s proposals thus far are not “customer service” but just another give away to corporations disguised as good public policy.

     3. “Reduce pollution.” More green-washing. City Light notes that vehicles driven by meter readers emit 72.3 tons of CO2 annually. Although this sounds like a lot, in truth, it represents the average annual  carbon emissions of about three Americans.  Meanwhile, at 40-60 jobs with living wages are yet again being phased out in favor of machines. Meter readers did more than simply read the meters, they served as yet another human anchor for community safety and kindness.

     It should also be remembered that hundreds of thousands of digital meters, plus the infrastructure to transmit this to centralized servers, plus the servers required to analyze the data generated and the air conditioners required to cool the servers – collectively have a substantial energy footprint. Yet again City Light is playing a number’s game and evading the real solutions. The real energy savings and pollution reduction needs to come from conservation initiatives and investing in renewals. As for the trivial amount of CO2 emitted by meter reader vehicles, why not supply meter readers with plug-in electric vehicles powered by solar energy?

    4. “Conserve Natural Resources.” This is another very seductive claim with eye-catching language that appeals to our “green” conscience, but containing no specific details to back it up. The way to fix our current archaic centralized energy grid system is to dismantle it and instead, build more localized, decentralized grids. Much power generation is lost through long distance transmission lines.  Although Seattle is in a somewhat unique position of being able to rely almost exclusively on hydropower, hydroelectric power generation is not without significant impacts on the environment. Discussing these in detail is beyond the scope of this article, but it is safe to say that reliance on large hydropower infrastructure is not a wise strategy for the long term future.

     5. “Help City Light better monitor and manage the electric grid service.” This claim has already been made above in number two (and refuted). Repeating the same point in slightly different wording adds no merit to City Light’s argument, even if it might impress a few people by appearing to offer a more robust webpage with a longer list of purported benefits.

     6. “Provide New Safety Features”. More promises with no specifics.

     In conclusion, Seattle City Light’s list of “smart” meter benefits is not substantiated if one conducts a thorough investigation of their promises and assumptions. The main beneficiaries of “smart” meters are corporations and those politicians who accept their cash contributions. Help us stop this freight train of negative consequences before it is too late. Please call and/or write to the City Council asking them to defund City Light’s “smart” meter (“Advanced Metering Initiative or AMI”) program. Email  City Light expressing your opposition to opt-out fees and other aspects of this program. You can phone them directly at 206.684.8441. Educate yourself on the issues by perusing our website. Thank you for your support.