David R. Baker, Chronicle Staff Writer
In a bid to ease opposition to Pacific Gas and Electric Co. SmartMeters, California regulators voted Wednesday to let the company’s customers keep their old analog electricity and gas meters if they choose.
But the vote by the California Public Utilities Commission didn’t satisfy SmartMeter critics, most of whom consider the devices a threat to public health. And the vote won’t end the debate over advanced, wireless meters, which are being deployed across the country as a first step toward building a better electricity grid.
The opt-out program approved Wednesday requires PG&E customers to pay a one-time fee of $75, plus monthly charges of $10, to hold on to their old meters. PG&E initially wanted $270 up front and $14 per month.
Low-income customers enrolled in the CARE program (California Alternate Rates for Energy) will face an initial fee of $10 and a monthly charge of $5.
The fees infuriate SmartMeter opponents, who say wireless signals from the devices have made them ill, with symptoms including insomnia, heart palpitations and painful ringing in the ears. Paying extra to protect their health, they say, amounts to extortion. They want the entire $2.2 billion SmartMeter program scrapped.
“I’m going to have to leave my house because of you,” Sudi Scull of San Francisco told the commission after the 4-0 vote, which prompted shouts of anger from a crowd gathered in the commission’s hearing room. Scull said she doubts she could convince her neighbors to pay the opt-out fees, meaning she would still be exposed to transmissions from their meters.
“Unbelievable,” she said to the commissioners. “I can’t wait until you get sick.”
Stop Smart Meters!, a grassroots group that has organized opposition to the devices, is encouraging PG&E customers to opt out but not pay the fees. Joshua Hart, the group’s director, said all of the utility’s customers are already paying for the program through their utility bills.
“Our health, our privacy, our safety are not for sale,” Hart told the commission before the vote.
Meters need readers
But the commission and PG&E maintain that letting some of the company’s 5.1 million electricity customers and 4.3 million natural gas customers opt out carries real costs. SmartMeters send customers’ energy usage data to the utility automatically, via wireless signals, but analog meters require a meter reader to check them once a month, in person.
“If one house on a block opts for an analog meter, the question is, should all the homes on the block share the cost for sending a meter reader to that one house?” said PG&E Chief Customer Officer Helen Burt. “We don’t think so.”
The commission will keep track of the opt-out program’s exact costs and may adjust the customer fees in the future as a result. The commission also plans to discuss whether entire communities can choose to opt out.
The notion that the radiation from cell phones, laptop computers and other wireless devices can hurt human health remains fiercely disputed, rejected by much of the medical establishment but supported by some researchers.
The American Academy of Environmental Medicine, a group concerned with toxic substances in the environment, last week sent the commission a letter urging a moratorium on SmartMeter installation, calling the devices’ radio frequency radiation “a preventable environmental hazard.” Some 49 city and county governments, including San Francisco, have asked for a moratorium until the health questions are answered.
The PUC remains skeptical that the devices can cause harm and has rejected all calls for a SmartMeter moratorium. But last March, commission President Michael Peevey ordered PG&E to put together an opt-out proposal, saying customers should have the ability to turn down devices that they don’t want or trust. Until then, both the utility and the commission had insisted that all PG&E customers receive SmartMeters.
“Ninety-eight, 99 percent of the people are totally unaffected by all this,” Peevey said Wednesday after the meeting. “A few people apparently have health effects that they ascribe to all this, and for those people, we now have an opt-out program.”
PG&E, based in San Francisco, estimates that 145,000 to 150,000 of its customers will choose to keep their analog meters. The utility already has about 90,000 customers on a “delay list” of people who asked the utility to refrain from installing meters on their properties.
PG&E will now contact all of those people, by phone and in writing, and ask if they want to opt out. People who already have SmartMeters but want them removed can apply on the company’s website or by calling (866) 743-0263.
Convinced of risk
Burt said she had talked to many customers opposed to the meters.
“They’re very convinced this is a health risk,” she said. “As someone who enjoys the wireless life, it’s not something I understand. But how can we be respectful of our customers if we don’t respect their views?”
Utilities in 25 states are already installing some form of advanced digital meter. The devices allow customers to track their energy use hour by hour and will pave the way for utilities to charge different rates for electricity at different times of day. The utilities, environmental groups and government officials hope that Americans will cut their everyday energy usage in response.
“You can’t have a smart grid without a smart meter – it’s that simple,” Peevey said Wednesday.
PG&E started rolling out SmartMeters in 2006 and has installed nearly 9 million so far, with about 900,000 to go. Installation throughout the utility’s vast service territory should be complete by the end of the year.