SPY FRY: Smart meters EXPLODE in Californian power surge

Receptacles blackened as dumper rams pole

Hundreds of smart electricity meters exploded in California after a truck crashed into a utility pole and caused a power surge on Monday.

More than 5,000 homes in Stockton have been affected, according to CBS Sacramento, following a surge caused by a rubbish lorry driver crashing into a utility pole and causing the pole's top wire to touch its bottom wire.

"The top lines are considered our freeways. The bottom lines are our distribution lines taking power directly to homes," a Pacific Gas and Electric spokesperson told CBS. "So when the two collide, they’re at different voltages and the higher voltage wins out, causing an overload."

Local TV station KCRA reported that the driver had been arrested, shortly after the incident, on suspicion of operating the vehicle while under the influence.

Local residents interviewed by CBS described hearing a large pop at around 8:30am. One said it sounded like a car bomb, another noted it was strong enough to shake his house. Brad Abernathy told CBS: "The neighbour across the street, his meter doesn't look as bad but his receptacles are all blackened."

"Receptacle" is Americanese for electrical wall sockets.

Consumers took to Twitter to express concern. It appears that smart meters suffered particularly badly from the effects of the surge. Aaron Burr asked why smart meters would be affected by power surges in a more extreme manner than an ordinary meter.

The Register notes that smart meters have to communicate with their corporate overlords outside the home. One commonly used method of doing so is powerline networking, which could mean a more direct connection between the meter's electronics and the mains feed into a home than would otherwise be the case.

Alternatively, it could be that non-smart meters which survived the surge were simple electromechanical models, and as such less likely to be affected by a surge than the smart meters. The latter would naturally contain relatively sensitive modern electronics.

PG&E has yet to respond to our requests for comment. We'll update this story if we do hear back from them.

Smart meters are a popular idea with governments and electricity companies around the world. In theory they might help to reduce energy consumption as well as furnishing energy suppliers with a lot of valuable information about their customers. A smart meter often allows a customer's supplies to be shut off remotely; another benefit from the utility company's point of view.

Critics of the technology argue that it presents serious privacy, security and surveillance issues, and that associated energy savings will be marginal at best.

In the UK, a government-mandated rollout of smart meters is expected to commence in April 2016, and some utility companies are already fitting them. A recent report from the Institute of Directors warned that the rollout should be "halted, altered or scrapped" to avoid a potentially catastrophic government IT disaster. ®

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