Despite a chorus of complaints by SmartMeter opponents, state regulators voted Wednesday to give PG&E customers the right to opt out of having a SmartMeter and keep their old meters — for a fee.
The decision, which is being closely watched by smart grid advocates and utilities across the country, came after a year of highly organized protests by consumers who oppose SmartMeters, primarily because of alleged health effects.
PG&E customers who want to opt out of SmartMeters will be required to pay a one-time $75 fee and a monthly charge of $10. Low-income customers would pay an initial fee of $10 and a monthly charge of $5.
The fees are to cover the costs of installing analog meters on homes that have SmartMeters but want to switch back, as well as the cost of paying workers to read the analog meters each month. PG&E and others have argued that if one house on a block chooses an analog meter instead of a SmartMeter that automatically reports electricity usage, it is not fair to expect neighbors who keep their SmartMeters to have to pay for the cost of the meter reader.
The opt-out decision is widely viewed as a compromise on the part of state regulators and PG&E, who have been flooded with consumer complaints.
“The standard for metering has been transitioning worldwide from the older technology of analog meters to today’s smart meter technology,” said Michael Peevey, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, who crafted the decision. “We are not reversing that transition by allowing for an analog opt-out, but we are recognizing that certain customers prefer an analog meter.”
But the fight is far from over. Many PG&E customers are adamantly opposed to paying the fees, which they say amounts to extortion. Nearly 60 people, some from as far away as San Luis Obispo, attended the meeting Wednesday, speaking for more than an hour during the public comment portion of the proceeding. Speaker after speaker talked about their personal health issues and wider concerns about the growing use of wireless technology.
While many California residents regularly use cellphones, laptops, iPads and other devices, a small but vocal group of people do not. SmartMeters have become a flash point because of worries among some people that electromagnetic signals from the meters’ wireless mesh network cause migraines, nausea and other health issues.
“Obviously, PG&E’s SmartMeter rollout has been controversial, and I know that this proposed decision is also controversial,” PUC Commissioner Mark Ferron said before
casting his vote. “But this decision strikes a fair balance, and provides a choice without further delay. I recognize that there have been a number of health and privacy concerns raised, but I suspect that some may never be satisfied.”
As the opt-out vote passed 4-0, SmartMeter opponents erupted in anger and dismay.
“This is a crime against humanity!” screamed one woman. “Shame! Shame!” chanted another. Peevey had to ask security guards to clear the room.
“We’re not going to stop. We’re not going away,” said Josh Hart, a Santa Cruz County resident and organizer of a grassroots group called Stop Smart Meters. “People are going to refuse to pay these fees. You’re going to see personal injury lawsuits and class-action lawsuits.”
Hart does not use a cellphone and says his computer is connected to the Internet via landline; he tries to avoid wireless technology.
PG&E moved quickly Wednesday to begin the opt-out process. The utility estimates that 145,000 to 150,000 of its customers will opt out. About 90,000 customers have already indicated that they do not want SmartMeters and are on a “delayed installation” list.
“We know personal choice is important to our customers when it comes to the meters on their homes,” said Helen Burt, PG&E’s senior vice president and chief customer officer. “This final decision in support of analog meters is a positive step forward for those who have concerns over wireless technology. We understand some customers have been waiting for this decision, and we are actively reaching out to those who have expressed their desire for a SmartMeter alternative.”
Burt said PG&E will begin the opt-out process immediately, and will work as quickly as possible.
PG&E customers who have a SmartMeter and want it removed can let PG&E know by going to PG&E’s website, calling the dedicated SmartMeter hotline (866-743-0263) or visiting one of PG&E’s 74 local offices. PG&E customers who still have an analog meter will receive a letter from PG&E explaining the opt-out option and the fees
Smart meters have been widely heralded as a way to bring greater efficiency to the nation’s aging electrical grid and give consumers greater insight into how they use electricity.
But as utilities across the country have installed them, the consumer backlash has taken the industry by surprise. Organizations like the SmartGrid Consumer Collaborative have sprouted up to educate the public about the benefits of the smart grid.
“We’re pleased that the California Public Utilities Commission took a definitive step forward today in the regulatory process to address the issue of smart meter opt-outs,” said Laura Hernandez of the collaborative?. “The ruling will pave the way for the strong and equitable continuation of PG&E’s SmartMeter rollout, a project that represents a critical first step in the process of modernizing the electric grid.”
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.
PG&E customers who want to opt out of having a Smart Meter can call PG&E’s SmartMeter hotline at 866-743-0263. Consumers who want to keep their analog meters will have to pay a $75 fee and monthly charge of $10. For more information about SmartMeters and how to opt out, go to http://www.pge.com/smartmeter.