I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.
Over the past year, a revolt against the rollout of utility Pacific Gas & Electric’s smart meters has swept through Northern California as some customers claimed the devices’ wireless transmission of electricity data was harming their health. In response, city councils in a number of cities tried to ban their installation.
On Thursday, PG&E, acting under orders from state regulators, unveiled a proposal to let customers have their smart meter’s radio turned off — for a price. PG&E would charge a one-time fee ranging from $105 to $270 and then customers would pay between $14 and $20 a month for two years. All in all, it would cost about $600 for the average customer to disable their smart meter.
“This cost is based on what it costs PG&E to disable the radio, adjust our IT system, adjust our billing system, and to manually read customers,” Paul Moreno, a PG&E spokesperson, said in an email.
In other words, that’s the price of dumbing down smart meters.
Tens of the millions of the devices are being installed nationwide and are a linchpin of the coming smart grid. Smart meters monitor electricity use in real time, allowing utilities to better balance supply and demand and charge accordingly. Customers can use that data to adjust their electricity use when rates are high and pinpoint the power hogs in their homes.
PG&E expects nearly 150,000 of its 5.1 million customers to shut down their smart meters’ radio transmitters.
“There is a loss of the benefits of the smart grid (power outage detection, ability to participate in demand response programs to reduce peak demand energy and better utilize renewable power),” said Moreno.
While the rollout has gone fairly smoothly in Southern California, some activists in the greater Bay Area claim the frequencies emitted by the smart meters’ wireless transmitters have triggered migraines and myriad other health problems.
“I’m here to charge you with the following criminal counts,” one person told members of the California Public Utilities Commission at a meeting last September. “This is misguided, Big Brother green ideology that the smart meters support.”
“This is massive experimentation of massive proportions and we are the victims,” declared another person.
Mobile phones, microwave ovens, and a host of other household gadgets also emit such frequencies, and to date there has been no scientific evidence to support claims about the health effects of smart meters.
(When I was at Southern California Edison in Los Angeles last October, an executive told me that utility had received only a handful of complaints about its smart meters.)
Nonetheless, regulators ordered PG&E to allow customers to opt out of the smart-meter program. The utilities commission must approve the utility’s proposal, so expect more fireworks over the cost of disabling smart meters.