Are California Smart Meters Causing Fires?

A turbine at Altamont Pass in Northern California | Photo: miheco/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The renewable energy trade press has been buzzing the last few weeks with news of PECO Energy's renewal of its smart meter installation program, two months after it suspended that program out of concern over fire risk. PECO, which serves about 1.6 million electric customers in the Philadelphia area, stopped installing smart meters in August after 29 reports of the meters overheating, with several fires as a result -- two of which spread beyond their meter boxes. The utility is replacing some of the previously installed meters, built by the Sensus company, with other models provided by Landis + Gyr, who will provide meters for remaining installations.

And the question arises: could the same issue happen in California?

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In fact, it has, if you take Ted Rawles at his word. Rawles' Bakersfield, CA vacuum cleaner repair shop suffered a small fire in June 2010, which Rawles says originated in a smart meter. The meter hadn't worked for months, after his calls to Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), Rawles says, but his calls to PG&E went unheeded until the fire.

PG&E's Denny Boyles told the Bakersfield Californian in July 2010 that the utility had no previous experience with smart meter fires. "We've never had a thing where the investigation showed the meter was the source of the fire," said Boyles.

That would be news to the owners of Berkeley's House of Curries restaurant, where firefighters cut power to the kitchen's smart meter on May 19, a month before the Bakersfield fire. The report on the incident by the Berkeley Fire Departmentnoted:

[i]nvestigation revealed the newly installed PG&E smart meter in the kitchen was hot to touch and smoking, with an orange glow inside the meter housing. Power was immediately shut off to the meter. The meter was pulled from its housing, and a small portion of the wall above the meter was taken out to check for possible extension behind the wall where the wires ecited the meter. Also investigated was the attic space, where the metal conduit containing electrical wires entered. No extension was noted.... scene turned over to PG&E.

Utilities and meter manufacturers often deny the new meters are the problem with the fires, though in PECO's case, suspects FierceEnergy writer Barbara Vergetis Lundin, PECO would be happy to have supplier Sensus take the rap:

[t]he public is led to speculate that it is because the Sensus meters were defective. Why else would PECO replace all of its existing, nearly 190,000 Sensus smart meters with Landis+Gyr, and then forge ahead with nearly 100,000 more new Landis+Gyr smart meter installations while scrapping the Sensus smart meter relationship?

One industry insider who wants to remain anonymous contends that it is because "PECO needed Sensus to take the fall."

What's the real culprit? Vergetis Lundin's sources have their suspicions:

Is Sensus getting a raw deal from PECO?

"Yes," say some industry insiders -- because the "real" smart meter issue is overheating caused by a "hot socket," whereby meter boxes (all UL-tested by the way) do not allow for clean contact with meters.

An anonymous source stated that, given the sheer volume of meter installations, there were bound to be issues caused by dirty, misshapen or corroded meter box jaws and, when precautions were not taken by PECO installers to identify and address these problems, incidences of overheating and fires resulted.

Others, including anti-smart meter campaigners EMF Safety Network, charge that hurried installation by contractors is a major cause of the problem, at least in PG&E's service area.

Smart meters are controversial. Objections to the meters range from fires and electrical malfunctions to alleged overbilling, to more tinfoil-hatty issues such as alleged health effects of the electromagnetic frequencies the meters use to transmit information (less that a cell phone uses, though that doesn't mollify hardcore EMF opponents) and secret utility company plans to download personal information into government databases.

As a result of the opposition California utilities now offer customers the ability to opt out of smart meter programs, though participation seems low -- perhaps because keeping your old analog meter involves a modest monthly fee.

Implemented properly, smart meters will be crucial in making our power grid able to contend with the inevitable distributed generation future. Many of the objections to smart meters may vanish when it turns out they help rooftop solar owners sell juice to the utilities. Having utilities be less than forthcoming about potential hazards of smart meters won't help. There were more than 14 million smart meters installed in California as of May of this year. If they suffer the same failure rate as Sensus' meters -- which the company downplays as .008% of the installed base -- that's more than a thousand overheating incidents statewide, with hundreds of potential fires as a result.

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