KUB Grid Modernization: Moving Toward the Future

In Guest Ed. by Guest Contributorleave a COMMENT

by Eddie Black

KUB’s mission is to serve our customers, improving their quality of life by providing utility services that are safe, reliable and affordable. To meet our mission, we not only look at our immediate needs, but we also plan for future generations. In doing so, we take a balanced approach that considers customer satisfaction, system, safety and financial performance.

About 10 years ago, a number of studies pointed to the increasing deterioration of the nation’s infrastructure: roads, bridges, communication networks, and utilities. KUB had already begun to take action on its waste water system through its Partners Acting for a Cleaner Environment program. Century II, an infrastructure management program KUB launched in May 2007, is designed to be an investment in our next 100 years of quality service—and in the quality of life in our community.

Taking the long-term view, KUB must also adapt to new technologies that provide benefits to our customers. For that reason, KUB’s Grid Modernization initiative was announced earlier this year as an integral part of the Century II program.

Grid Modernization involves the deployment of advanced meters (sometimes referred to as “smart meters”) that are equipped with communication devices. These devices periodically send secured radio signals containing encrypted utility consumption data to receiving towers that have been strategically located throughout the KUB distribution system. KUB will use this information to detect electrical outages before being notified by the customer, and to respond and repair these outages more quickly and effectively than in the past.

The information will also allow automated meter reading, and the ability to start and stop services remotely, which will lower KUB’s costs and result in increased convenience for our customers. Finally, it will allow customers to view their utility usage on a daily basis, and give them the ability to make changes to control their consumption and save money.

Today, advanced meter technology is commonplace. At the end of 2015, over 65 million of these meters had been installed across the United States, and over 43 percent of U.S. households currently have one or more of these devices.

After completing a successful pilot program in the Fort Sanders area in 2014 and years of research and planning, KUB made the decision to expand the program to install new advanced meters system wide through a four-year project to replace 400,000 electric, natural gas, and water meters starting this summer.

KUB understands that some customers may not want to have an advanced meter. For that reason, we stated at the time of the Grid Modernization announcement in March 2016 that customers may opt out of the process. Since manufacturers are phasing out their production of old-fashioned analog meters, customers who choose to opt out must still have their old meters removed and replaced with a new digital meter. However, for opt-out customers, these digital meters will not contain the communication device that makes them an advanced meter.

In the May 26, 2016, issue of Knoxville Mercury, a guest editorial raised questions about the safety of advanced meters. KUB’s research of Grid Modernization technology included reviews of studies that had been performed on the safety of this technology, including the potential health effect of electromagnetic fields (EMF) and radio frequency (RF) found in the wireless networks of “smart grids.”

A vast majority of independent studies have concluded that there are no known health effects related to the low levels of RF emissions associated with advanced meters. Based on these studies, we believe that this technology is safe and adds a number of benefits to KUB and to our customers. A complete report of KUB’s views on the health effects of Grid Modernization technology can be found at our website at kub.org.

KUB focused on studies in which the researchers could not be perceived of having a bias for or against various types of Grid Modernization technology. For that reason, KUB relied on studies from highly-respected organizations that were neutral on the issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) studies were especially valued due to the balanced approach they employed.

The WHO has conducted a number of studies on EMF and RF through the years. The one most applicable to Grid Modernization technology is titled “Electromagnetic Fields and Public Health: Base Stations and Wireless Technologies” and a four-page summary of this study can be found at who.int.

Quoting directly from this report:

“From all evidence accumulated so far, no adverse short- or long-term health effects have been shown to occur from the RF signals produced by base stations. Since wireless networks produce generally lower RF signals than base stations, no adverse health effects are expected from them.

“Considering the very low exposure levels and research results collected to date, there is no convincing scientific evidence that the weak RF signals from base stations and wireless networks cause adverse health effects.”

More recently, the WHO completed its mobile phone study in 2013 and published a summary of its findings in October 2014. That summary can also be found at who.int

Some have attempted to link the WHO Mobile Phone study to the issue of smart meters, claiming that smart meters have the same level of risks to users as mobile phones. In a recent report, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) attempted to add some perspective to the issue. Their report can be found at edf.org. Quoting directly from the EDF report:

“The WHO report did not explicitly address smart meters; it and the other commonly cited studies focused on cell phones, power transmission lines, microwave ovens, and other emitters of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) at various radio frequencies, including extremely low frequencies (ELFs).

“Given that smart meters are also RF emitters, some have worried that if cell phones might pose a health risk, smart meters might do so as well. As with cell phones, a person’s exposure depends on the signal strength and distance: a report published by the California Council of Science and Technology (CCST) in 2010 included findings from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) that a person 10 feet from a smart meter would experience only a small fraction of the RF exposure—250 to 1,250 times less—than they would be exposed to using a cell phone. So whether or not future studies find the RFs present more health effects, smart meters make up a very small part of a person’s daily exposure.”   

The technologies associated with Grid Modernization and advanced meters have been studied extensively over the past several years. Of all the studies conducted by the WHO and its agencies, only one has shown a possible link between RF emissions and human health, and that study was limited to mobile phone usage. As the Environmental Defense Fund points out, there is a significant difference in potential exposure from a mobile phone placed in direct contact with the head and an advanced meter that is placed outside the home.

KUB is supportive of continuing research into this field of study. Based on the results to date, however, KUB is comfortable with the opinion of most researchers that advanced meters and Grid Modernization technologies are safe for its customers. We see Grid Modernization as an important element of KUB’s commitment to provide reliable utility service to our customers, now and into the future.  

Eddie Black is KUB Senior Vice President and the executive sponsor of KUB’s Grid Modernization program.

Share this Post