Outsmarting the “Free” Market

This is not a problem limited to one State. It is an international problem affecting large areas from Maine to California, and countries around the world.

Some things should be uninvented – DES, HRT, GMOs, hexachlorophene in infants’ soap, nuclear power plants, nuclear weapons, etc. Now a new threat, the Smart Grid and Smart Meters. If these are good ideas, why is the free market not providing them? Why the need for taxpayer funding? The fact that this industry must depend on taxpayer money is just one of many reasons it is suspect.

The May 20, 2011 Sandia Labs News Release reported that 69.3 Million has been granted for Smart Meter implementation in Vermont.

During a December 2011 news conference Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin and Senator Bernie Sanders announced their support of a 15 million dollar government grant to Sandia Labs. The grant is to be used for implementation of Smart Meter technology in Vermont. This is a perfect example of Corporate Welfare. Sandia has a long, fascinating history.

From the Sandia website:

…Sandia National Laboratories’ roots lie in World War II’s Manhattan Project and its history reflects the changing national security needs of postwar America. Sandia’s original emphasis on ordnance engineering — turning the nuclear physics packages created by Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories into deployable weapons — expanded into new areas as national security requirements changed. In addition to ensuring the safety and reliability of the stockpile, Sandia applied the expertise it acquired in weapons work to a variety of related areas such as energy research…

Is it really a good idea to put the national electric grid under the control of any corporation? How about a corporation with a history of war and destruction? There are many unanswered questions.

The Smart Grid is the opposite of the movement toward sustainable communities and transition towns. Control of the grid should be local. When power outaqes occur, and they will, the smaller the area of the black-out the better. The larger the area, the more difficult it is for any emergency response. This puts large populations at risk for property damage and death. In September 2011 a large power outage affected more than 5 million people in California, Arizona, and Mexico. In recent years, an ice storm caused a large power outage in northern New York State. Farmers were among those affected. Eventually farmers were able to access generators for milking machines on rural farms.

One of the big issues in Vermont is the lack of generators. When power goes out, individual home owners are on their own. Some home owners have purchased generators. Most cannot afford the high price. Estimates range upwards of $5000 for a hard wired generator that will allow a furnace to heat a home and prevent property damage. The damage caused by frozen pipes can be extensive. Also, there are health concerns for those who need electricity to power medical devices.

One of the most relevant questions is: why do we need a Smart Grid? Who will benefit? The first duty of a corporation is to its share holders. Profit and the bottom line trump consumer protection. In Vermont there is a history of this. For example, CVPS moved all of its emergency repair vehicles out of Bennington. The vehicles are now garaged many miles away in Sunderland. This decision to garage the vehicles in a less densely populated area was based on the corporate bottom line. That is understandable. It is not the duty of corporations to be benevolent. This is the way the capitalistic system works. The move of the vehicles has placed many homes at risk – especially during winter storms. This risk continues today.

Why the rush to an unproven technology? Will the cost per kilowatt go down for the consumer? Will there be privacy concerns? Who will have access to power consumption data of individual homes? For anyone with access, it will be easy to see which homes are occupied and when they are unoccupied. Will every home now need to be protected with battery powered burglar alarm systems?

Besides questions about the Grid, there are questions about Smart Meters. In some areas of the country they are illegal. There are questions about the synergistic consequences of additional EMF pollution in the environment. There have been reports of health devices and other electronic equipment being affected. Some believe that Smart Meters can cause cancer. All of the science is not yet in. It will take years. In the meantime, should people be used as guinea pigs for this big experiment? How much more would be accomplished if the science and money were dedicated to conservation and alternative sources of power? Every dollar spent on the Smart Grid is a dollar that is not available for other efforts.

There is another issue: that of the lack of a democratic process. In Vermont those who opt-out of the Smart Meter implementation will be charged an additional fee every month. It is reported that in Maine there is a one-time $40 opt-out fee. Op-out fees feel a little like blackmail. So far, the people have had no say in this controversy.

Maybe the most important reason to oppose Smart Grid technology, is that it places too much power in the hands of too few. Imagine bringing down the grid and the chaos that would result. No power. No refrigeration for the food supply in the summer. No heat to keep people alive in the northeast during winter. No transportation. No gas – it could not be pumped. No water – it could not be pumped.

A terrorist attack on the grid, is not the issue. Mistakes happen. Disgruntled workers react. Maybe the most sure thing is that technology fails. Sooner or later all technology fails. This is not a zero defects industry. If the unplanned shutdown damages large industrial turbines and generators, it could take many months to replace them. Think about many months without electricity.

Maybe the Smart Grid will be the greatest political-engineering feat of all time, or maybe not. Imagine just one flick of the switch and the entire system is brought down. This could be the end of everything – the real Armageddon. No food. No communication. No Internet. No life as we know it. Engineered back to the Stone Age without the survival skills that our Stone Age ancestors had.

Rosemarie Jackowski is an advocacy journalist living in Vermont. Read other articles by Rosemarie.