This is a summary of a series of articles in our monthly Japanese newsletter, Shouhisha Report, about so-called smart meters, or digital meters that use radio frequencies and electromagnetic radiation to transmit information about your home electricity use. They replace the analog meters that have to be checked by staff visiting your home. There is concern about privacy, as well as health risks, in addition to the huge cost of changing meters. In Japanese, smart meters are usually abbreviated as “sumame” and we want to clarify your rights as consumers.
The current problem is that power companies like Tepco or Kansai Electric Power are “demanding” customers to get new smart meters installed. This happens at the same time as Japan’s electricity market has been deregulated. In some cases, when customers have switched power company, the new provider has installed a smart meter without providing much information. In one such case, a CUJ member contacted us, explaining that the new provider had simply said: “Changing to a smart meter is necessary.” It later reversed its position, and admitted that this was not the case.
A staff member at our CUJ office had the same experience, and decided to dig a little further. When contacting the customer support center at Tepco, they replied in the same way: “You have to change to a smart meter.” This, however, is not true. The issue came up for debate in the budget committee of Japan’s Parliament in March, 2016, confirming that as far as contracts are concerned, smart meters are not indispensable.
The power companies have more tricks up their sleeves. Another lie is when they claim: “Analog meters are no longer manufactured, so we don’t have them in stock.” But according to experts like Taro Amishiro, author of books about electromagnetic radiation problems who is concerned about smart meters, most analog meters will work for much longer than 10 years, and don’t need to be exchanged so often. Old analog meters can also be reused.
It took our CUJ staff member several rounds of tough negotiations with Tepco’s call center to switch back to an analog meter, showing that it can be done. Another CUJ member told us that he had successfully gotten Chubu Electric Power agree to make the switch back.
The privacy concern is connected to how smart meters store data about your electricity consumption. The details are recorded by the digital device every 30 minutes. This can give power companies a very clear picture of your daily life, including when you switch on your TV or open your fridge. Okubo Sadatoshi, an expert on electromagnetic radiation and radio wave health problems, notes that even if the power company agrees to disable the transmission from your smart meter, the data is still stored digitally in the device. In other words, it can still be accessed and the problem of invasion of privacy remains.
Doorstep visitors or phone calls claiming they want to install a smart meter may be someone trying to scam you, so don’t fall for their sales talk. Says Michiyo Koketsu, CUJ: “Please pay attention to any information you get from your current power company as they roll out the switch to smart meters. You have the right to say no, and it is up to you to tell them that you prefer to keep your analog meter. If they customer call center gives you a hard time, just stand your ground. They can’t force you to switch to a smart meter, and you have the right to demand to switch back to an analog meter, if you so wish.”