Smart Meter Wars

Controversy Erup ts in California

Published In: EnergyBiz Magazine May/June 2011

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A SWEEPING PLAN BY REGULATORS AND UTILITY EXECUTIVES to install more than 17 million smart meters in California by 2012 is generating growing controversy about health and cost ramifications from consumer advocates and threatening to derail the national move toward smart meter deployment.

The state is already well on its way to jump-starting the imposition of an energy smart grid which is designed to lower peak demand for energy and allow consumers to better control their energy use and costs. Smart meters are a central element of that plan. The state's three giant private utilities - Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric - intend to have their smart meter installations fully in place by next year. The multimillion-dollar cost of the smart meter project is being passed through to utility customers on their monthly bills.

However, some customers in PG&E's Northern California service territory have complained - and in some cases testified before the California Public Utility Commission - that they are suffering health effects including migraine headaches, heart palpitations and nausea from the emissions of the radio frequency meters. Some PG&E and SDG&E customers have also complained that the smart meters are inaccurate and caused their utility bills to spike. PG&E officials said the smart meters are completely safe and reliable.

The complaints grew vocal enough, however, that Michael Peevey, president of the state's PUC, directed PG&E in mid-March to develop a plan to allow customers who object to the meters to be provided another option. "I think it's clear the time has come for some kind of movement in the direction of customer opt-outs," Peevey said. He added that the health complaints to the PUC have been limited to the PG&E customer base. His initial order did not extend to the other two utility companies.

"We have not had complaints about radio frequency emissions or other concerns about smart meters from customers of other utilities in California," said Peevey.
RF Unknowns

Peevey's action came as a surprise to many and followed direct discussions he had with PG&E's president. It also came in the wake of the introduction of a bill in the state legislature to mandate opt-outs for smart meters for all California utility customers. Several localities in the state have actually called for a halt to the installation of RF meters because of citizen complaints. Still more controversy was generated from the release of a 50-page draft report in January from the California Council on Science and Technology. That report, requested by several state legislators, concluded that current FCC standards involving smart meters are adequate and that properly installed and maintained meters emit less RF exposure than household cell phones and microwave ovens.

However, the report also noted that "not enough is currently known about potential nonthermal impacts of radio frequency emissions to identify or recommend additional standards for such impacts." It called for consumers to be given more information about all RF-emitting devices and urged the PUC to "consider doing an independent review of the deployment of smart meters to determine if they are installed and operating consistent with the information provided to the consumer." So although the state report found the smart meters currently safe, it expressed uncertainty about the unknowns involved.
Growing Controversy

Continued safety assurances from utility executives, the report's release and Peevey's action have done little to quell the growing controversy in California about the safety and accuracy of smart meters in the state. "CCST's study doesn't conclusively resolve the smart-meter debate," said California State Assemblyman Jared Huffman, who co-sponsored the opt-out legislation. "The benefits of smart meters and a smart grid do not require wireless technology." Huffman and others suggest customers be given the option of a hard-wired smart meter. Such meters are more expensive to install and maintain. Peevey said that the cost "should be paid by the customers who choose to opt out."

The proposed state legislation would make the opt-out choice retroactive for utility customers, which could cause even more confusion. PG&E already had installed 7.6 million smart meters by March 2010 and will install another 2.5 million by the end of 2012. SCE has nearly half of its planned 5 million installations in place. And SDG&E has replaced nearly all of its 1.4 million electric meters and 136,000 of its 850,000 gas meters. Meanwhile, smart meter opponents say an opt-out provision may not resolve any possible health issues because residents could still receive RF emissions from their neighbors' meters.

The escalating brouhaha has caused proponents of smart meters to re-evaluate their current strategy and wonder whether the issue will spread to other states that are not as far along as California in their smart meter deployments. The smart meter controversy has also touched Texas and Maine, but on a smaller scale. In Maine, for example, smart meter opponents are pushing for a moratorium and the opt-out option as Central Maine Power Company replaces 620,000 meters with RF technology. Maine's public health director said last October that the smart meters pose no health risk because they operate on the same frequency as wireless routers used widely for home computer networks.

Many in the industry see the growing smart meter controversy as a wake-up call. Some believe the energy industry should work collaboratively and proactively to quell fears about the technology. "I think it's something that is a legitimate concern for many people, and it shows that neither we nor the utilities have done a very good job about educating people about the safety issues," said Russ Vanos, vice president of marketing for Itron, which designs, manufactures, services and installs smart meters across the country, including meters in the SCE and SDG&E service areas.

Vanos said the RF technology is completely safe and accurate and has been used in commercial and industrial applications for nearly 30 years. "RF meters are not brand new," he said. "Our utility customers have used electronic technology on their commercial customers for years, and they work. They are safe. They emit less emissions than a microwave oven in somebody's kitchen."

Vanos believes the industry has to step up, perhaps through an agency such as Edison Electric Institute, and do a better job of addressing any safety concerns. "This is an issue we have to address as an industry," he said. "The utility company has the most at stake. They own the end consumer. We have never marketed to the end user. We viewed it as their issue. But today all the vendors need to work collaboratively with the utilities and with each other and communicate to our customers."

If the move toward smart meters is slowed by the RF emissions issue in California, there are alternatives for the smart grid such as power line carrier (PLC) meters that are used more widely in Europe and China than in the United States. They are more expensive and come with their own controversy over interference issues. But some utilities have used the technology to deliver broadband to rural customers.

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