No smart meters in SF

Pub date September 7, 2010

EDITORIAL Smart meters are a dumb idea. That’s what The Utility Reform Network says, noting that the high tech devices are expensive (California utilities, including Pacific Gas and Electric Co., will be charging consumers $5.4 billion to install the meters), don’t save energy or money, and can lead to privacy risks. PG&E bills have soared unexpectedly in places where the meters have been installed in the past year, forcing an investigation by the California Public Utilities Commission, which concluded on Sept. 2 that the meters are okay, but PG&E’s customer service isn’t. Still, TURN and other experts say the report is inconclusive, and state Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) wants legislative hearings before any more meters are installed.

San Francisco hasn’t faced the smart meter problem yet since the utility hasn’t been installing them here — but that will start soon enough, now that the CPUC (never known as a harsh critic of PG&E) has given the green light. TURN is urging customers to boycott the meters, so the San Francisco supervisors should tell PG&E that the city doesn’t want this flawed technology.

Smart meters are supposed to make it easier to save energy. The idea is that the devices will not only track how much electricity a customer is using, but give that customer the ability to monitor usage at different points in the day and cut back during peak periods.

But to take advantage of the gadgets, a customer would have to buy a bunch of expensive gear on the side — communications devices, thermostats, computer chips for energy-intensive appliances, etc. PG&E isn’t going to pay for that stuff.

Meanwhile, the "smart" part of the meter sends information about your energy usage through a wireless signal. Privacy advocates worry about that (as do people concerned with having yet another device in the house emitting low-frequency radiation).

And while PG&E denies that there are any problems with the accuracy of the meters, huge numbers of people in areas where they’ve been installed have reported huge — and otherwise inexplicable — hikes in their monthly bills.

So for most residents and small businesses, smart meters are just going to be a pain in the ass — a questionably accurate, potentially dangerous, and otherwise worthless device that PG&E is making money from by installing.

TURN has advice on its website ( for people who want to boycott the meters: to tell PG&E to leave the existing meters in place. If you put a sign on your meter saying you don’t want it changed — and if you tell the person coming to replace it that you don’t want a smart meter — you may stave off the new product for a while.

But San Francisco is in the process of creating a community choice aggregation (CCA) system that will put the city for the first time in the business of delivering retail electric power. That ought to give the city some authority over how local meters are going to operate — and at the very least, the city should tell PG&E to back off until CCA is in place and the city can do its own independent study.

The supervisors should ask City Attorney Dennis Herrera to investigate what authority the city has to block PG&E from installing smart meters, and to look at how the new CCA might avoid including the cost of the devices in the rates local customers pay for power. At the very least, the board can endorse the boycott and urge the CPUC to keep smart meters out of the city. Candidates for local office should oppose the smart meters. And if PG&E wants to force the issue, city officials just need to remind the utility that its local monopoly is illegal, that San Francisco has a federal mandate for public power, and that just three months ago, 68 percent of the city’s voters said they wanted to preserve a public power option.