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How smart are they?

Say goodbye to your meter reader; Smart Meters are here

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Pacific Gas and Electric’s ambitious and controversial program to replace every household’s electricity meter with a wireless Smart Meter has brought howls of protest over health risks and calls for bans in many other parts of the state. So far in SLO County, though, even as contractors are ripping out the analog meters and bolting on the Smart Meters, local residents and elected officials have remained relatively quiet.

The SLO County Health Commission, however, recently asked the county’s Public Health Department staff to look into the issue and report to health commissioners in January. Their action came in response to a public comment about health concerns with the radio frequency emissions the wireless meters use to beam electricity consumption information to PG&E offices every hour.

Elected officials in some cities and counties have passed a moratorium on Smart Meter installation until more is known about their radiation emissions and the risk they may pose. The city and county of Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Watsonville, and Fairfax are among the jurisdictions that have recently imposed a moratorium.

San Luis Obispo County supervisors have not placed the matter on their agenda. Supervisor Bruce Gibson said at a recent supervisors meeting that PG&E representative Patricia Wilmore met individually with each supervisor to provide information about the Smart Meter program.

Wilmore would not tell New Times what she said to the supervisors, saying she is “not authorized” to speak to the media.

Jeff Smith, PG&E spokesperson on the Smart Meter program, said in a phone interview from his Fresno office that the Smart Meter radio-frequency emissions comply with standards set by the Federal Communications Commission and the World Health Organization. Smith also pointed to a recent report by the Structure Group, which concluded Smart Meters provide an accurate record of electricity use. Consumers will be able to go online to see how much electricity they used the day before, he said.

Many consumers in other parts of California have protested that their electricity bills have doubled or tripled since the new digital meters were installed. The utility blamed a hot summer and inaccurate analog meters for the discrepancies.

The Structure Group, in its September report, chided PG&E for poor customer outreach about its Smart Meter program. In response, PG&E has scheduled several open houses to inform electricity consumers about the changes. Smith said four “Answer Centers,” or open houses, were held in Paso Robles in September, and another four were held in Atascadero in October.

PG&E is planning  Smart Meter installation in San Luis Obispo, Los Osos-Morro Bay-Cambria, and the South County sometime next year. Installation is already complete in some parts of the North County, and is ongoing there, Smith said.

PG&E’s $2.2 billion program aims to install 10,000,000 Smart Meters in California, including more than 130,000 in SLO County—each one set up to wirelessly beam electricity-use information to a nearby collector every hour. These collectors, mostly located on power poles, remotely transmit the data to PG&E offices on a frequent basis to help the utility manage demand.

Thousands of consumers have contacted the California Public Utilities Commission to report a variety of health problems they attribute to their Smart Meters, including headaches, dizziness, and insomnia. Many are also worried about long-term impacts including cancer, and they fear that babies, the elderly, and pets may be especially vulnerable.

The 1996 FCC radiation standard was designed to protect an average male from tissue heating, or cooking, during a brief exposure—not to protect the public from health problems related to continuous transmission, critics say.

“There is uncertainty about possible risk from nonthermal, intermittent exposure that may continue for years. Federal health and safety agencies have not yet developed policies concerning possible risk from long-term, nonthermal exposures,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Radiation Protection Division.

The Division of Ratepayer Advocates of the California Public Utilities Commission issued a report last month calling on the CPUC to investigate the health impacts of Smart Meters, citing “clearly a high level of public concern” over health problems.

“The commission would be remiss in its duty to ensure ‘safe and reliable’ service if it did not solicit further evidence and perform an analysis” on health problems of radio-frequency emissions, the ignition potential of Smart Meters close to gas lines, and electronic interference with other wireless devices, the ratepayer advocates’ report stated.

State Assemblymember Jared Huffman, a Democrat from San Rafael, has asked the California Council on Science and Technology for an independent analysis of the FCC’s emission exposure guidelines. Their report is expected in January.

“A significant number of my constituents are concerned that the health effects of Smart Meters, especially looked at cumulatively with the ubiquitous wireless and emitting devices, aren’t adequately reflected in the FCC standard,” Huffman told New Times.

The FCC standard “is what PG&E points to as assurance that these are safe. A lot wonder if the FCC standard needs scrutiny,” Huffman said. “The study will speak to how confident we should be in the FCC standard. It’s thermally based, it’s a bit dated, and there are questions about whether it looks at cumulative effects.”

Huffman said he is “pursuing an opt-out strategy” for worried electricity consumers who don’t want a Smart Meter. So far, PG&E and the California Public Utilities Commission do not offer an opt-out option.

“If someone doesn’t want to be exposed to these radio waves, if they have a unique sensitivity, they should have the choice to have a wired meter. If people are suffering pain and health effects, and they’re willing to pay a little more to have a land line for their meter, that’s a viable policy we should explore,” Huffman said.

Many consumers are also reporting that Smart Meters are interfering with their household electronic devices, including cordless phones, crib monitors, wireless headsets and microphones, home security systems, and remote-controlled garage doors. These devices rely on the same free 900-megahertz band Smart Meters use.

PG&E’s Smith said anyone experiencing interference problems should call PG&E.

The utility company has come under more fire recently after the senior director of its Smart Meter program, William Devereaux, admitted using a false name to try to join an online group opposed to Smart Meters and secretly monitoring other online forums critical of PG&E. Devereaux told the San Jose Mercury News he wanted to understand what customers are thinking and what’s behind their resistance.

As for human meter readers, some have been retrained to install Smart Meters, according to Smith. Around 20 percent of PG&E’s meter readers will lose their jobs once the Smart Meters are deployed.

Contributing writer Kathy Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@newtimesslo.com.

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