Smart meters seemed like a good idea at first glance — a little wireless device that, unlike it’s dumb analogous predecessor, would track precise readings of household energy usage in real time, identifying wasteful activities and helping consumers make informed choices about conservation and consumption.
Considered a crucial first step in enabling a smart grid that would modernize the existing power grid for the information age, the technology was touted as offering potential benefits such as cheaper service, fewer new power plants and transmission lines, cleaner air, and more reliable services.
But Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s $2.2 billion program for installing smart meters has now become the subject of caustic criticism by thousands of customers and activists as the culprit for skyrocketing rates, adverse health effects, and threats to privacy.
Since deployment began in California in 2009, consumers have mobilized to halt the spread of the devices, demanding further studies of the technology and options for those who don’t want to join the rush toward a wireless world. Thirty-three local governments have called for moratoriums on the installation of the devices.
The California Public Utilities Commission, which in 2006 authorized the state’s investor-owned utility companies to install more than 10 million meters in California, has done little to quell the storm of protests and concerns. But that began to change March 10 when CPUC President Michael Peevey announced that the agency would require PG&E to develop an opt-out proposal for consumers within two weeks.
Prefacing the decision with an observation that almost every speaker against smart meters the CPUC heard from was a PG&E customer, Peevey called out Northern California residents as the main opponents to the program.
“I am directing PG&E to prepare a proposal for our consideration that will allow some form of opt-out for customers who object to these devices, at a reasonable cost to be paid by the customers who choose to opt-out,” Peevey said at the hearing. “Obviously I cannot prejudge how this commission will evaluate any such proposal by PG&E, nor can I predict what PG&E itself will propose. But I think it’s clear the time has come for some kind of movement in the direction of customer opt-outs.”
But the announcement did little to quell the opposition by the scores of customers, local governments, health professionals, and advocacy groups that claim it undercuts the true concerns while simultaneously opening another avenue the utility behemoth could profit from.
“Admitting to the problem is the first step to resolving it,” says Joshua Hart, executive director of grassroots organization Stop Smart Meters!, which has been at the forefront of the rebellion. “But we obviously think a ton of things were left out of this.”
The makeup of the meter haters spans interests and ideals, from Tea Party conservatives to liberal environmentalists. Their unifying trenchant criticism of Peevey, who was president of Edison International and Southern California Edison Company until 1995, has only increased with each meter installed. PG&E has already replaced 74 percent of its analog electrical meters and 83 percent of its gas meters.
Resolutions critical of PG&E’s smart meter deployment have been passed by many Bay Area cities and the counties of Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo. Assemblymember Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) introduced a bill in December 2010 that would create a statewide system for opting out.
Although PG&E officials didn’t return repeated Guardian calls about the controversy, they have told other media outlets that the meters are completely safe and installation is continuing as scheduled, despite the growing furor.
A total of 670,000 meters are planned for San Francisco, and installation has already begun in the Marina and Richmond districts, much to the dismay of many residents. During a series of public meetings at the CPUC since 2010, dozens of people regularly line up to ask for alternative options and conclusive, third-party studies on the technology.
Speakers mainly consist of those claiming to suffer from exposure to electromagnetic fields, a condition known as electrohypersensitivity (EHS) that causes headaches, nausea, fatigue, and ringing in the ears. Sufferers liken themselves to canaries in coal mines and say smart meters are just one aspect of larger problem: understudied, overhyped wireless technology.
“The bottom line is it’s a debacle that been rolled out without any public input, without any long-term study,” Hart said. “This is the wireless technology industry being too greedy and going too far.”
Smart meters emit less powerful electromagnetic fields than many smart phones, but activists worry about the effects, both cumulative and on those with EHS, a condition recognized by the Swedish government. But here in the United States, few experts outside of holistic and alternative health circles take it seriously as a health threat.
Hart pointed to the recent publication of a study by the National Institutes of Health finding cell phone emissions affect brain activity, calling it the “smoking gun.” But most scientists found the report inconclusive about how that stimulation affects the brain.
Yet the activists have held regular protests lambasting PG&E for endangering their health and invading their privacy. “This is forced installation of untested devices on an unwilling public,” Carol Page of Marin County told us at a large Feb. 24 protest outside the CPUC meeting in San Francisco. “It’s time this commission stopped enabling and started regulating.”
CPUC officials have said there was no need for additional analysis of the program, arguing that the meters are safe and that installation is a routine procedure allowed under existing utility contracts.
But the venerable consumer watchdog The Utility Reform Network (TURN) has long-opposed the program, focusing primarily on its cost and privacy threats from the data that is being transmitted. Hundreds of customers have contacted TURN to complain about the meters, and the group says Peevey’s policy change misses the mark.
“It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but the devil is going to be in the details,” TURN spokesperson Mindy Spatt told us. “We would review any proposal to charge customers very carefully. We don’t want to see them have pay again.”
She said PG&E’s consumer outreach efforts have been “abysmal,” and TURN supports a moratorium on smart meter installation.
“We are not hearing from any people who are benefiting from it,” Spatt said. “We are hearing from people who are upset about it, and we remain unconvinced that these meters offer any benefits commensurate with their costs.”
TURN’s website offers a flyer that reads “Do Not Install,” which customers can print and place on their analog meter. Wellington Energy, the company performing installations, has respected the signs, Spatt said.
“The flyer is still getting tons and tons of play,” Spatt said. “PG&E has done nothing to address customers who say that the smart meter is unwanted and unwelcome. We are very anxious to see what sort of an opt-out they can offer.”
Although the flyer conveyed a direct message to utilities, some chose the more radical route of blocking installation physically. In January, two women, one a grandmother, were arrested in Rohnert Park for blocking a Wellington truck carrying a load of smart meters.
Sandi Maurer, founder of the EMF Safety Network, believes the movement from the CPUC falls short of taking real action addressing the threat of harmful electromagnetic frequencies to the environment and human health.
“We really need a moratorium while we study the health impacts and have evidentiary hearings where we could determine whether they are safe,” she said. In December 2010, the EMF Safety Network’s request for the CPUC to open an investigation into smart meters was denied.
One smart meter claim the CPUC did investigate was the allegation that the new meters weren’t accurate, following up on more than 600 complaints from customers that their energy bills shot up after the new meters were installed.
The Structure Group, a Houston-based consulting company, tested 750 smart meters and 147 electromechanical meters and concluded that they worked fine. But the study also found that PG&E didn’t properly handle the complaints.
“PG&E’s process did not address the customer concerns associated with the new equipment and usage changes,” the report said. “Some customers interviewed during this assessment did not consider their complaint resolved, despite indications from PG&E and the CPUC that the customer agreed with the resolution.”
As a demonstration of how the program could have been rolled out differently, one needs only to look up the road to Sacramento. The publicly owned Sacramento Municipal Utilities District has installed 184,000 meters and encountered little opposition.
“I’ve seen what’s happening in the Bay Area and we haven’t seen anything like that whatsoever,” SMUD spokesperson Chris Capra said. “I’m amazed at the difference in our customers compared with customers around the country. “
Capra credits the relative embrace of the meters to the method SMUD used to mobilize them. Before installing any meters, SMUD build its wireless network. Then SMUD installed 78,000 trial meters in two separate areas — one in close-quartered downtown and one in suburban areas — to see how the meters behaved under topographical and proximity challenges. Then it led the meters through automated trials doubled with traditional manual reads and found that they were 99 percent accurate.
“We wanted to be certain before we began with full deployment,” Capra said. “We had estimated reads, manual reads, and made sure everything is functional. “
But some problems go beyond customer service. Along with health and safety concerns, critics remain unconvinced that the smart meters live up to their purported benefits to consumers, even though they’re the ones paying for the program.
“If I wanted to monitor my usage, I could go buy an in-home electricity monitor myself and just plug it in,” Maurer said. “For utilities to say we absolutely need this technology to reduce energy costs is false.”
Privacy advocates warn the meters could erode the privacy of daily life unless regulators limit data collection and disclosure. In a joint filing in March 2010, the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation urged the CPUC to adopt rules to protect consumer’s energy usage information.
“Smart meters generate more information in formats easier to share and analyze, which is part of the future of energy utilization,” said Jim Dempsey, vice president of public policy at CDT. “That being said, some significant questions remain.”
Smart meters collect 750 to 3,000 data points a month per household. This detailed energy usage data can indicate whether someone is at home or out, how many people are in the house, and if they are using particular appliances. In effort to stave off data mining by marketers or hackers, CDT and EFF urged the CPUC to adopt comprehensive privacy standards for the collection, retention, use and disclosure of consumers’ household energy data.
Smart meters represent a worst case scenario in terms of security, Dempsey warned. Not only do they lack sufficient power to execute strong security software, they are easily accessible and installed in numbers large enough that a few may not be missed if they are stolen. The safest way to protect cyber security is to assume from the outset that they will be attacked.
“You are not going to stop technology and the benefits,” said Dempsey. “It’s hard to say we should not take advantage of something that gives us more information, but you need corresponding security. It’s not too late to adopt the privacy rules, and we certainly hope that the commission will do that soon.”
CDT and EFF say that utilities collecting the data from smart meters must set rules specifying in advance how data will be used. Disclosing information to marketers and government agencies should be restricted.
“Smart meters really do penetrate into the ways we live in ways that no other technology is doing now,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at EFF. “It’s a special circumstance because there isn’t anything else like this that is in everyone’s home.”
As opposition increased along with the installations, further requests for investigation into the program were filed. In July 2010, Huffman asked the California Center for Science and Technology to analyze whether the federal safety standards were sufficiently protective of public health, a move that was supported by fellow Assemblymember Bill Monning (D-Carmel) and the City of Mill Valley.
In December, Huffman also introduced Assembly Bill 37, directing the CPUC to offer an opt out alternative to customers who did not want smart meters and to disclose important information to the public. However, like the ordinances passed throughout the state, the move was largely symbolic and wouldn’t be implemented until the time most installations would have been completed in 2012.
The report released by the CCST in January analyzed the threat posed by smart meters, concluding that additional research was needed to accurately gauge the potential threat and had found “no clear evidence that additional standards were needed to protect the public from smart meters or other common household devices.”
The report has since served as a reference point for both PG&E and the CPUC as evidence of safety of the meters. Nevertheless, consumer groups dispute the findings.
“We need investigations from a truly independent third party, not an industry-promoting group hired by PG&E,” Maurer said. “We need evidentiary hearings on the health impacts of microwave facilities. Every time someone buys a new wireless router on a cell phone, it’s a drop in the bucket of more wireless technology. But [with smart meters] we’re talking about a massive increase of the density of these wireless emissions.”
The CPUC’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates was also unconvinced by the CCST’s conclusion. It noticed that the report did not fully explore issues related to cumulative exposure or from multiple co-located meters, as would be the case on apartment buildings and close quarters typical in San Francisco.
A California Senate bill imposing restrictions and revisions on utilities regarding their handling of smart meter information passed in February 2010, and in June the CPUC announced it had adopted a framework requiring utilities to modernize security standards, but details on upgrades have not appeared.
For now, protesters remain focused on pressuring regulators to stop the installation and they plan to keep up the fight for as long as needed.
“It is shock and awe to get the meters installed before people figure out that they are being scammed,” Hart said. “Until there is a moratorium called, we are urging people to resist. Stopping smart meters is just one part of the battle against the telecommunications companies.”