Maui Meadows has become a hotbed of activity regarding a new technology that is being lauded as an energy conservation behemoth by supporters--and a potentially harmful and invasive intrusion by the opposition. Passionate arguments on either side of the Maui Smart Grid Project are many and varied.
This and other smart grid pilots and projects are being called the next stage in innovation for electrical grids worldwide. The Obama administration allocated $3.4 billion to upgrade the equipment currently being used to deliver power to homes and businesses across America in 2009, calling the current system antiquated and in need of an overhaul.
The focal point of these arguments is the new "smart" meter that Maui Electric Company (MECO) plans to install at the homes of volunteers in Kihei's Maui Meadows. These meters will collect information about electrical usage in each residence and transmit it several times an hour back to the utility. MECO said the data will help the company deliver electricity to the system in a more efficient fashion and give participants an opportunity to conserve during peak-use hours.
The Maui Smart Grid Project is expected to be completed by the end of March 2014 at a cost of approximately $37 million. The objectives of the project are to establish a system model for the integration of clean energy and to verify cutting-edge technologies in a smart grid system where a percentage of renewable energy is already in place.
The meters are part of a larger network of technologies that supporters hope will enable Maui to conserve power and more effectively utilize alternative energies such as wind and solar. Currently, the majority of power used on Maui is generated by burning diesel fuel shipped from out-of-state. The Maui Smart Grid Project aims to reduce the island's dependence on oil.
The project began enlisting volunteers last summer, and plans to continue until it reaches its goal of 200 residents in Maui Meadows. The pilot program is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
Participants in the study will allow a smart meter to be installed in their homes in exchange for access to detailed information about their electrical use, available online or through an included display. The meter collects information by receiving radio frequencies from household appliances that are retrofitted with smart transmitters. This enables users to monitor their appliances and calculate the best times to use them, depending on peak electrical-usage. In addition, volunteers also receive a smart thermostat, a smart water heater control system and a solar PV monitoring system, for those with solar installations.
For some concerned citizens, this deal is neither appealing or smart.
"Smart meters are wireless devices that run 24-7 and emit dangerous levels of electromagnetic radiation that cannot be turned off by the people who agree to have them in their homes," said Debra Greene, Ph.D., and author of "Endless Energy."
"In addition," Greene said, "smart meters require wireless antennas to be located throughout neighborhoods in close proximity to individual smart meters. What's more, in order for the meters to monitor and control energy usage, you must be willing to install power transmitters on appliances inside your home. These transmitters emit radio frequency/microwave radiation (RF) throughout your home."
The California Public Utilities Commission recently reported that it has received more than 2,000 complaints about the negative effects of smart meters on the health of customers. Many complained of headaches, dizziness, ringing in the ears, and in some cases, memory loss and heart palpitations.
Many point to the radio frequencies emitted by the meters as the culprit in the escalation of health-related symptoms. Proponents maintain that the meters don't emit more radiation than a cell phone, but many don't believe this to be the case.
"California communities that have been subjected to smart meter installations have done extensive research and found smart meters to be in violation of FCC safety limits," said Greene. "There are significantly elevated RF exposures in comparison to typical individual exposures in daily life. When the new meters are installed in multiples, the radiation compounds."
In fact, the questions regarding health risks to residents has led to moratoriums throughout California on the installation of smart meters. This has spread to other states, and even internationally--the Dutch Parliament recently ruled that smart meters could not be compulsory.
MECO is currently installing the infrastructure needed to support the smart meters as part of the Maui Smart Grid Project. The project will collect data for at least a year, then submit a report to the U.S. Department of Energy and project participants.