Health and High Energy Costs: Assessing the Impact of Smart Metering

Apr 26, 2012, 5:45 PM, Posted by

The connection between health and energy consumption is an area just beginning to be understood, but when some people are forced to choose between paying their energy bill and paying for food or medicine, it becomes critical. The Health Impact Project has just released a new health impact assessment (HIA) of a pilot program run by Illinois' largest electric utility, Commonwealth Edison. The HIA looked at the health effects of implementing "smart metering," which replaces existing mechanical meters with digital meters that record customer usage in 15-minute increments. The new meters are coupled with a new two-way communication system that allow a utility company to remotely connect and disconnect service, as well as get real-time, detailed customer usage. The purpose of this HIA was to evaluate the potential health impacts of smart metering for residential customers in the ComEd service territory in Illinois.

The HIA looked at three key issues:

  • Whether smart metering will raise customer rates for electricity service because of the additional infrastructure investment costs;
  • Whether new energy pricing programs enabled by smart metering will provide benefits to customers or increase costs to vulnerable customers at a time when they can least afford it; and
  • Whether the use of a remote service switch to connect or disconnect service, particularly in the case of disconnection for non-payment, will have adverse impacts on vulnerable populations

NewPublicHealth spoke about the new HIA with lead researcher, Megan Sandel, MD, MPH, who is the interim executive director of the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership.

NewPublicHealth: Why is energy a health issue?

Megan Sandel: Understanding how energy and health are connected is a burgeoning field. We understand that the cost of energy can sometimes be particularly important because families may have to make tradeoffs, such as trading off between paying for their heat and necessarily eating enough. Or they’re trading off between paying for their heat or their electricity bill and being able to pay for medicine. And while some people may see the potential concern for some users over heating costs, they may not connect those similar problems can occur with cooling costs. People have actually died in heat waves because they were not able to access their energy needs in a timely way. And so, we were interested looking at this energy proposal and being able to add in possible health implications.

NPH: What populations are most vulnerable or affected due to a lack of affordable energy and why is that?

Megan Sandel: I think particularly vulnerable populations can be children and elders. They tend to be more temperature-sensitive and less likely to be able to either cool themselves down in heat waves or keep themselves warm in particularly cold temperature. And people with chronic conditions such as asthma or heart disease can find their conditions exacerbated by heat and/or cold.

Other groups of concern include families that are already having trouble making ends meet, low-income individuals or people who are socially isolated---people who are living by themselves who may not be able to access help when their energy goes out.

NPH: What are the key recommendations of the HIA?

Megan Sandel: One of the main recommendations here is that we need better consumer education to reduce usage. One of the real positives of this energy grid upgrade and using these digital meters is that you’re going to have a lot of information that will help people understand how to reduce their usage. Reducing usage is a win-win because it’s a win for people to have lower bills, and it’s a win for the grid and the system, by not needing as many power plants and so resulting in less pollution. I think what we found from our HIA is that the current pilot program that’s been done prior to rolling out the program statewide is that there wasn’t enough consumer education. We really want to see there be a more significant outreach, particularly to vulnerable populations but also to all customers in order to help them use this information to reduce usage.

NPH: Is installing smart meters alone enough to improve energy costs and health of residents?

Megan Sandel: I think that right now, just putting a digital meter in the house is not going to be sufficient. There’s going to be a cost to rolling out this upgrade that will result potentially in some higher prices, and so in order to do that you’re going to have to do more consumer education with families in order to help them reduce their usage, and then you’re also going to have to use the efficiencies of this system wisely. So, if I’m moving out of my house and I want you to shut off my account, that’s a really great efficiency. You don’t have to send someone out to do that. But, if I have lost my job and I have a chronic disease and I’m falling behind on the bill, there are safety implications to now shutting someone off remotely. I think that until you have some really strong consumer protections.

NPH: What else do consumers need to learn about their energy consumption, particularly as smart meters are introduced?

Megan Sandel: There’s a lot to share. You could connect appliances to the digital meter so that you only run your dishwasher at night instead of during the day. And perhaps energy companies would send you a text message if you’re using energy during a certain high peak period to shut off any appliances you’re not using. I think people who may not have English as a first language, or access to the internet may not understand opportunities to weatherize their house and save on energy costs. I think there needs to be more targeting for certain types of users. So, for instance, an elder who is on a fixed income who is in his home a great deal of the time, may not have a lot of ability to adjust their usage. Our HIA found that certain users they were able to reduce their usage as much as 30 percent, but that was a small segment of the population, only five to seven percent of people.

The huge upside of the new grid is that you’re going to have a lot of information that you can use and that you can target the right people in order to do energy reduction exercises but you can’t necessarily expect everyone to be able to make the same changes.

One idea is to help build into tracking who are vulnerable populations. So, for instance, if someone applies for the low-income home energy assistance program, they could be flagged within the system. Or if someone has a chronic disease. Or create a medical registry of people who use medical devices at home.

And we are going to have to partner with community programs—ones that can really do outreach in these vulnerable population communities in order to help people understand their bill and to reduce the usage they can.

>>Read more on health impact assessments.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.