Smart Meter Interference

November 24, 2011

I’ve written here before about the growing interest in the use of “smart” electricity meters, often visualized as part of a larger “smart grid” initiative.  There are good reasons to pursue this technology: it can enable the power distribution grid to respond more nimbly to changes in the supply and demand for electricity, and help manage demand by introducing variable electricity rates.   But there are also some concerns about the proposed smart grid.  The GAO has identified several areas of security risk. and there is a risk that variable rates might actually decrease the stability of the system ,if implemented incorrectly, by inducing large fluctuations in demand more quickly than the power generators can adjust.

A recent deployment of smart meters to utility customers in New England has illustrated another potential problem area with these devices, according to an article at Security Week.

About 200 customers of the Central Maine Power Company recently noticed something odd after the utility installed smart meters in their homes: in some cases other wireless devices stopped working, or behaved erratically.

These meters use wireless communications in the 2.4 GHz frequency band, an unlicensed bit of spectrum that is also used by WiFi networks, security systems, garage door openers, and baby monitors.   As anyone who has installed a home WiFi network is likely to know, occasional interference and “dead spots” do occur.  Usually, these can be resolved by moving some of the equipment, or by changing the frequency “channel” on which the device operates.  Moving one’s electric meter or garage, however, is not always a practical option, and some devices are preset to a single channel.

(As the article points out, a similar sort of problem is occurring in many hospitals and other medical facilities, stemming from interference between electronic monitors and other equipment.)

As someone who has spent a few hours now and then pulling network cables, I do understand the appeal of wireless connections.  Apart from the convenience of wireless, the hope is that someday, your energy-intensive appliances (say, a clothes dryer) will be able to communicate with the smart meter in order to run at off-peak times when electricity rates are low.  I just hope someone will think this all through a little more carefully than they seem to have done so far.


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