11 September 2010

High-Tech Utility Meters Spark a Fight

The Wall Street Journal

PG&E Cites Need to Control Energy Use, but Some Residents Fear Higher Prices, Reduced Privacy From Digital Readings

A new, high-tech utility meter is inflaming passions around the Bay Area. Now PG&E Corp. is trying to tamp down growing regional opposition to its $2.2 billion meter upgrade—but is failing to mollify many local critics.

PG&E, through its Pacific Gas & Electric Co. unit, plans to install 9.3 million digital electric and gas meters—otherwise known as "smart" meters—by 2012 as part of a statewide effort to modernize the electric grid and give consumers better tools to control energy use.

The meters are integral to state and national efforts to cut power-plant emissions in the coming years. Unlike old meters that must be read manually, the new ones wirelessly transmit readings, allowing utilities to charge higher prices when they want to discourage energy use or give price breaks to favored uses, like running appliances or charging electric cars during off-peak hours.

Complaints about meters began surfacing in California in mid-2009, when customers in Bakersfield began noticing unusually high power bills. More recently, customers in some Bay Area cities have complained about health problems that they attribute to radio transmissions from wireless meters, and have expressed fears that the meters threaten privacy by theoretically making it possible for hackers to intercept data transmissions.

PG&E says these fears are unfounded and that the meters have been thoroughly tested and have robust security. To reduce opposition, the utility is setting up temporary "answer centers" where customers can go to ask questions about the meters. It also is hiring 165 customer-service representatives and has set up a dedicated telephone line to field customer questions.

But PG&E's outreach has failed to appease critics who, increasingly, are influencing local city councils and county boards of supervisors.

The city council in Marin County's Belvedere, for instance, in August sent a letter to PG&E asking it to suspend meter installations until concerns are addressed. Fairfax and Novato have taken similar steps. And San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera in June petitioned state regulators to suspend PG&E's program, "until questions about their accuracy are fully resolved."

In Santa Cruz County, Watsonville's city council passed an ordinance in August that prohibits smart meter installations for one year. At its next meeting on Sept. 14, the council will decide whether to create a fine for anyone who flouts the law.

Watsonville Mayor Luis Alejo says PG&E has mishandled public queries. He says he asked the utility in August to delay its program until public meetings could be held, but it refused. PG&E now is organizing community meetings, he says, "but that should have been done a long time ago."

Some local residents have taken their objections to the California Public Utilities Commission, which has jurisdiction over utility programs. The commission has declined to order changes in the PG&E program, though Commissioner Nancy Ryan says she will form a task force this month to provide more oversight, noting the importance of public trust.

In response to billing complaints, the commission ordered an independent analysis of meter accuracy. In a report last week, consultants said the meters used by PG&E, which are made by Landis+Gyr, meet industry standards for accuracy and do a better job measuring energy consumption than the electromechanical meters they replace. The report didn't address health concerns.

Joshua Hart, a resident of Scotts Valley, recently formed a group that is trying to stop smart-meter installations. He says he believes wireless meters "pose a significant public health threat" by adding their radio pulses to those of cellphones and other wireless devices.

Tammie Donnelly, a 51-year-old anti-aging consultant in Aptos, says she got a PG&E vendor to remove a smart meter from her home and replace it with an old-style one last winter. She says the wireless meter made her ill, causing headaches, nausea and chest pain.

Studies have failed to established a link between health issues and low-power radio devices like smart meters. A recent analysis by researchers at Kings College, London, looked at 46 studies that tried to determine if electromagnetic fields make people ill. The review concluded that "despite the conviction of…sufferers that their symptoms are triggered by exposure to electromagnetic fields, repeated experiments have been unable to replicate this phenomenon under controlled conditions."

The Federal Communications Commission, which sets standards on radio-wave exposure, says there is no indication that smart meters are unsafe. Smart meters and other wireless devices "are tested and must meet our exposure standards," says Robert Wellser, chief of technical analysis in the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology.

PG&E officials, to date, aren't allowing cities and individuals to opt out of the program, and it isn't clear what force of law city ordinances might have. The state commission has jurisdiction for most utility matters.

"This is a mandatory program," says Helen Burt, senior vice president for Pacific Gas & Electric. One reason is that the utility plans to eliminate most meter reader positions, saving money that provides a major justification for the program.

Some critics say PG&E sowed seeds for the current skirmish by sponsoring and funding an unpopular ballot measure, Proposition 16, in June. The initiative sought to block cities and counties from setting up power-buying agencies that would compete with the utility. The measure failed.

"City councils aren't happy with us about Prop 16," says Ms. Burt. "We know we need to regain their trust."

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