General Articles
Smart Decisions / by Ray Holley / December, 2010

As the SmartMeter debate continues to heat up, NorthBay biz investigates all sides of the issue. Where do you stand?

Ten years ago, beginning in 2000 and continuing into 2001, California endured an unprecedented electricity crisis. Numerous widespread blackouts caused upheaval in major metropolitan areas, where reliable power had been as easy as, well, flipping a switch.

The crisis was more political than technological in origin. California had deregulated its electrical industry with good intentions—to increase competition—but the results were higher rates, lower reliability and the eventual notoriety of a company called Enron. But this only occurred after billions were gamed out of a system that resulted in wholesale electricity prices jumping as high as $1,400 per megawatt hour, compared to $45 per megawatt hour just one year earlier. It was later revealed that they were phony energy shortages created by energy market speculators, but at the time, confusion reigned at every level of government, and utility ratepayers picked up the tab.

State regulators, including the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), vowed it would never happen again. The federal government agreed. Last year, President Obama urged Congress to pass legislation leading the way to a national “Smart Grid,” a modern technological solution to the problem of varying energy demands.

Linking everything together

A fully implemented smart grid could include an intelligent digital monitoring system that can oversee and control power use on a level as small as a single appliance. Adding receivers and transmitters to home appliances is already underway, although the first market for these types of devices will likely be industrial settings, where power consumption is more significant than in individual homes.

At its most basic, the smart grid is an upgrade of our existing power grid, which simply sends power out through transmission lines that we hook up to and draw from. The ability to receive as well as transmit information about power use is the game-changer. Imagine a “smart” computer program that can monitor power use over a wide area, divert power here and there as demand changes, and even—with a customer’s permission, of course—throttle back supply at certain times to keep the supply and demand in balance.

The smart grid is touted as a green solution to increased power demands because it lets consumers use power more efficiently and effectively, and empowers them to conserve energy by monitoring their own power use. The generation of electricity is a major factor in climate change, and anything that reduces or stabilizes its production is seen as a positive factor in slowing down global warming.

Measuring it

SmartMeters are the first step in the deployment of the smart grid. Wireless devices mounted on your electric and gas meters, SmartMeters transmit and receive information from a cellular network via radio frequencies.

It’s quite a change in how electricity and gas use are measured. The old school meters are checked once a month by a meter reader who notes the reading, subtracts last month’s figure and comes up with a tally for your month’s energy use.

SmartMeters check your energy use every hour. Every four hours, electric SmartMeters transmit that data back to the utility (it’s every six hours for SmartMeters hooked up to your natural gas supply). With round-the-clock hourly monitoring, your utility is now checking up on you wirelessly 720 times a month, compared to once-a-month visits from your meter reader.

By using a radio frequency mesh network, SmartMeters are actually linked to each other. If your SmartMeter is too far from the receiver (they’re typically mounted on a nearby utility pole or streetlight), it will simply relay your data to a neighbor’s meter, which will send the information down the line until a receiver is within range.

The next phase of the smart grid will be even more interactive. Consumers and small businesses will be able to purchase a “home grid” or “home network” device that uses data from SmartMeters and smart appliances to paint a detailed picture of energy use. Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) is developing rate plans that take advantage of this technology. By agreeing to conserve energy during the critical 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. peak use hours in the summer, ratepayers will be offered lower rate tiers in the off-peak hours. Compliance will be measured by SmartMeters.

Under a mandate from the CPUC, PG&E is installing wireless SmartMeters all over the state. Of approximately 9.8 million SmartMeters to be installed (5.5 million electric, 4.3 million gas) PG&E reports it’s already at 70 percent deployment, meaning around 7 million have been installed.

Skepticism growing

There are those who believe SmartMeters aren’t that smart. Anecdotal evidence of over-billing abounds, with many ratepayers assailing PG&E and local government officials when bills increased after installation of SmartMeters. PG&E officials say that a small number of older analog meters might have been running too slowly, under billing customers who are now paying the correct charges. A study commissioned by the CPUC found that SmartMeters tend to be accurate but that PG&E is doing a poor job of following up on customer complaints and concerns. The utility says it’s taking steps to address customer service issues and is providing customer outreach ahead of meter deployment.

But there are also prevalent concerns about SmartMeters that center around negative impacts on our health, privacy and personal freedom. SmartMeter doubters are an unusual alliance of those concerned about technology’s impacts on our lives, property rights advocates and government skeptics.

Claims of health risks

Sandi Maurer, founder of the Sebastopol-based EMF Safety Network, suffered from health problems that, she says, were caused by electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from indoor and faulty wiring in her home. “This [potential for sensitivity to EMFs] has been suppressed and downplayed by the industry for years,” she says.

According to Maurer’s website, “Electrical Sensitivity (ES) is also known as Electrosensitivity, Electromagnetic Sensitivity (EMS), EMF Sensitivity, Electrical Hypersensitivity (EHS), Microwave Sickness, Radio Wave Sickness, Wireless Stress Syndrome and Rapid Aging Syndrome,” all terms for individuals who may have adverse reactions to exposure to SmartMeters and other appliances and devices, including cellular phones, cordless (DECT) phones and Wi-Fi, that emit EMF and radiofrequency radiation (RF).

“Radiofrequency radiation travels through walls and there are biological impacts,” says Maurer. “Short-term risks include headaches, sleep problems, nausea, memory loss and body pain. Long-term impacts can include cancer and genotoxic affects.”

Maurer says the SmartMeter deployment is “the largest technology rollout in PG&E history; the use of wireless radiation is a billion-dollar, blossoming industry, but it hasn’t been proven safe. Neither health nor environmental impacts were considered in the process of approving SmartMeters. The CPUC approved this without a study and without scientific consensus.”

Government caution

Maurer and others have been derided as a little kooky, but a groundswell of opposition to SmartMeters is growing, even as PG&E continues installing them at a rapid pace. Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane wrote a letter to the CPUC requesting customers be allowed to opt-out of the smart grid until more studies are conducted on SmartMeter safety. “The jurisdictions throughout Northern California that have requested moratoriums or passed ordinances regarding SmartMeters speak to the volume of concern we are hearing on this issue,” Zane wrote.

The communities of Fairfax, Berkeley, Watsonville, San Francisco and Bolinas, plus Santa Cruz County, have all expressed public concern about the devices, some even calling for moratoriums on installation. State Assemblymember Jared Huffman has requested that the California Council on Science and Technology study health concerns relating to SmartMeters. Even the Marin Association of Realtors has called for a SmartMeter moratorium.

Santa Rosa psychotherapist Will Riggan got involved in the SmartMeter issue in early 2010. He’s been concerned about potential health risks of non-ionizing, low-level radiation for several years and believes that, with the dramatic rise in use of cellular phones, wireless computer networks, and now SmartMeters, “electro-pollution” has become a public health policy issue. “The SmartMeters, once installed in densely populated areas, will, I suspect, create a statistically significant increase in electro-pollution in those places,” he says.

Riggan adds: “Once phase two of the grand SmartMeter plan is completed and we all have transmitters in each of our appliances—refrigerator, dryer, air conditioner and such—we’ll be walking around inside our homes in a significantly thicker EMF field. Nobody knows what the resultant health effects might be. Speaking for myself, I’m not going to buy an appliance with those things installed—or I’m going to have them removed.” Riggan adds that when he recently bought a laptop for his 14-year-old daughter, he obtained the necessary router, switched off the wireless function and hard-wired her Internet connection.

He also brings up the concept of “the commons”—which refers to resources that are held in common by a community and shared by all. “This includes the air we breathe, the water we drink—nature itself. We’re running the risk of, one day, being bombarded by harmful levels of something that’s both invisible and insensible. What is too much? How do we tell?”

Riggan also notes that ratepayers—not PG&E shareholders—are paying for the manufacture and deployment of these meters—which have cost $2.2 billion so far.

Hold it an inch away

While there’s plenty of controversy about the alleged health impacts of radio and electromagnetic frequencies, national consumer organizations aren’t taking any chances. The Federal Communications Commission, which controls the bandwidth used by wireless devices, suggests using speakerphones and headsets to reduce contact between your mobile phone and your head.

According to an FCC bulletin, “federal health and safety agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have been actively involved in monitoring and investigating issues related to RF (radio frequency) exposure.”

The online product manual for the ubiquitous BlackBerry recommends holding your smartphone at least 25 millimeters (.98 inches) away from your body, especially noting that it should be kept 25 millimeters away from the abdomens of pregnant women and teenagers. Presumably, having a SmartMeter mounted on the outside of your home near a bed, desk or any place where you spend a lot of time could create similar exposures, since wireless phones and SmartMeters operate in similar frequencies.

Privacy and lawsuits

Deborah Tavares has a different take on SmartMeters: She believes they might ruin her financially. Tavares and her husband are housing developers and own apartment buildings in Sonoma County and Southern California, where Southern California Edison is installing SmartMeters as well.

While SmartMeters were being installed on her Southern California buildings, Tavares was contacted by tenants who were concerned about health risks from the radiation. “I went to Southern California Edison to look at the environmental impact reports so I could copy the pages and show my tenants they were safe,” Tavares says. She was surprised when she was unable to obtain an environmental study. PG&E confirms an EIR wasn’t required by the CPUC.

At an August meeting of the PG&E Santa Rosa Customer Advisory Group, Tavares was told by an attorney representing the utility company that, because SmartMeter installation was mandated by the CPUC, PG&E could not be held liable or responsible in any lawsuits claiming health problems caused by the devices.

Tavares and her husband are concerned about their liability if SmartMeters do create health or environmental hazards that are uninsurable. “Southern California Edison and PG&E are installing equipment on our buildings without our permission. We want to be indemnified against the health risks by PG&E or the CPUC if there isn’t a study conducted [on those risks]. Property owners of multi-family construction aren’t aware of what’s coming down on them due to these uninsurable risks.”

She believes exposure to SmartMeters will trigger “a wave of lawsuits” similar to those triggered by mold exposure and construction defects in multi-family developments. She also believes SmartMeter installation is a breach of privacy, a stretch of the terms of a utility easement and poses a security risk if savvy computer outlaws hack into the system. For more information, Tavares encourages visiting

Because Tavares’ tenants each have their own electric meter, Tavares wasn’t aware that SmartMeters were being installed in Southern California until it was too late to protest, but, “We’re fending them off one of our apartment buildings in Santa Rosa at the moment,” she says, because, “we refuse to be the first line of legal defense” against the litigation she believes is coming.

The Sonoma County Republican Central Committee has come out against SmartMeters for privacy reasons. Decrying the devices as “Big Brother” intrusions into our everyday lives, a resolution authored by Central Committee member (and president of the California Eagle Forum) Orlean Koehle states the SmartMeter deployment is “an invasion of privacy rights and the right to control and use our own property (a violation of the Fourth Amendment).” In an introduction to the resolution, Koehle asserts that the smart grid plan can be traced to “Agenda 21, a plan devised by the United Nations…to exercise more and more control over our lives and property using the excuse of ‘saving the environment.’”

Koehle, Tavares, Maurer, Riggan and others all encourage resisting SmartMeter installation. TURN (The Utility Reform Network) has downloadable signs that can be posted on meters or windows requesting the meters not be installed. The TURN website suggests that SmartMeter installers are respecting the signs, for now.

PG&E responds

PG&E has received the message about communication. The utility didn’t think anyone would mind when it began installing SmartMeters and wasn’t ready for the storm of complaints ranging from billing questions to health fears. That’s changing rapidly, and PG&E is now holding workshops, informational meetings and making the rounds of service clubs, fairs, city council meetings and more, including a SmartMeter Hotline (866-743-0263) to field customer questions.

In October, PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno answered questions from NorthBay biz about SmartMeters and the most common concerns he hears.

NBB: Why are you installing SmartMeters?
Moreno: There’s a national push to modernize the power grid so it’s efficient, reliable and sustainable. SmartMeters are playing a central role in helping California use more renewable power.

NBB: What will happen to the meter readers?
Moreno: Before SmartMeters, we had about 900 people involved in meter reading system-wide. We’ve offered them other jobs, and 80 percent of former meter readers are now working elsewhere at PG&E.

NBB: What about privacy?
Moreno: We’re not going to know if you’re using your washer—there’s no way we’ll be able to tell. Consumers can get a Home Network Device to program appliances to run at a certain time. You can communicate with the devices in your home, the SmartMeter and the thermostat, but it doesn’t go back to PG&E. All privacy information laws are in effect. We don’t share information about our customers.

NBB: Are you shutting off more customers for nonpayment because of SmartMeters?
Moreno: Our rate of shut off for nonpayment has decreased by 50 percent in the last 12 months. We do much more outreach to customers to help them manage their bills.

NBB: Do SmartMeters work with solar installations, where property owners sell power back to the utility?
Moreno: Not yet. We’ll have a different type of SmartMeter that will allow that. Those customers will keep their old meters until the new ones are ready.

NBB: Can I refuse to have a SmartMeter installed?
Moreno: The CPUC requires that all meters be upgraded by 2012. We want customers with concerns to contact us, as we find many people are satisfied after learning more about the new meters.

NBB: What about health risks?
Moreno: SmartMeters are designed and built to be well within allowable standards. The meters operate for a very short time, about 45 seconds per day with a signal strength of one watt. It’s equivalent to someone making a 45-second phone call once a day outside your house. The World Health Organization has studied this and found no adverse health effects from such low levels of radio frequencies.

NBB: Did you conduct an Environmental Impact Report on SmartMeters?
Moreno: It wasn’t required. There were two years of public study on this plan, which included additional research on radio frequency radiation. An EIR wasn’t done because it wasn’t necessary.

Business impacts

Once SmartMeters and the smart grid are functional, businesses will see new opportunities to use technology to change how they use energy. An argument for the smart grid is that emerging energy users, such as electric cars, will benefit from a technology that lets them be charged at night when energy demands are decreased.

A focus on energy conservation impacts the bottom line of every business, but a larger issue is the need to build fewer power plants, especially those that create greenhouse gases. Local technology firms are also getting involved. KG Technologies, based in Cotati, makes a relay that’s used in SmartMeters. The K120 relay lets utility companies turn electricity service on and off remotely. While this can be used to shut off power to those behind on their payments, a more common use is to switch off power to homes or businesses that are vacant.

What’s next?

With 7 million SmartMeters installed and state and federal regulators pushing the smart grid, it’s difficult to imagine that this momentum can be stopped. If there are health risks associated with exposure to electromagnetic and radio waves, we may not know about them for years, so perhaps using a headset on your cell phone is a good idea. The best strategy might be to recognize that technological change often outpaces our ability to comprehend it, and it’s up to us to make smart decisions about how we run our businesses and conduct our lives.