Legal challenge to smart meters

December 29, 2010

OPINION By JUDY VICK

If you haven’t already, you will soon receive a notice from PG&E announcing the installation of a wireless smart meter on your home. The proposed benefits might sound good–a way to get more specific information about our energy use, so we can make more informed choices about how to save energy.

Why then, does The New York Times report that opposition to smart meters is sweeping the nation? And Bloomberg Business Week states, “Duke Energy’s proposal to install 800,000 (such meters) in Indiana was rejected by regulators because the cost of the project would outweigh potential benefits to consumers.”

Here in California, residents of Bakersfield filed a class action suit against PG&E for substantial billing increases after smart meters were installed. California Senator Dean Florez, the majority Democratic leader in the Senate, demanded a halt to smart meter installations. “People think these meters are fraud meters,” said Florez.  “They feel they’re being defrauded. They’re getting no benefit from these things.”

In California alone, 23 Cities (including Morro Bay) and three counties have formally opposed the wireless PG&E smart meters.

Also at the forefront of homeowners’ concerns are alleged public health risks of radio frequency radiation emitted by smart meters. Cindy Sage, co-editor of the Bioinitiative Report, states the World Health Organization (WHO) does not give an assurance of safety for current radio frequency radiation exposure limits set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), rather, the WHO is in the process of deciding if radio frequency is a carcinogen or neurotoxin. WHO is not going to have a formal report until late next year.

Supporters of smart meters compare radio frequency radiation exposure from smart meters (two feet away) to cell phones at the head (which has 3.2 -1.100 times more radiofrequency), laptops (1.1 – 2.2 times more) and microwave ovens (two inches from door 550 times more).

However, opponents say this is a tactic the industry uses to minimize the radiofrequency impact from smart meters—which cannot be turned off by consumers—unlike the other devices. It also assumes there is no harm from cell phones, laptops and microwave ovens—which are used for shorter periods of time. People who report illness from radio frequency exposure avoid all these types of devices. Prudent avoidance of electromagnetic radiation has been adopted in Australia, Sweden and several U.S. states including California, Colorado, Hawaii, New York, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin.

Opponents also say that smart meters violate one or more FCC conditions for radio frequency exposure compliance—one example is co-locating meters in conjunction with other antennas or transmitters.

Neurological symptoms from exposure to radio frequency include headaches, difficulty falling asleep, sleep disturbances, disorientation and general malaise, cardiac symptoms such as rapid heart rate and irregular heart beat known as arrhythmia.  Continued emission exposure can also compromise the immune system and make one susceptible to disease and illness.

Consumer groups are concerned the wireless smart meter grid will not be secure. In a recent regulatory filing, the Consumer Federation of California attacked the position of investor owned utilities seeking to avoid regulatory liability for abuses of private consumer data taken from smart meters by non-utility third parties.

Opponents also say PG&E admitted smart meters interfere with arc fault interrupters, designed to protect against fires, and household electronics.

On November 18, 2010, the California Public Utilities Commission Division of Ratepayers Advocates called for an investigation into alleged public health hazards with PG&E smart meters. The announcement read, “Unless the public’s concerns can be put to rest, there is a very great risk that PG&E’s smart meter deployment will turn out to be a $2.2 billion mistake ratepayers can ill afford.” The next day, the commission announced its investigation into consumer complaints.

On December 6, Assemblymember Jared Huffman (D – San Rafael) introduced Assembly Bill 37, which requires the commission to allow customers to opt-out of the wireless smart meters and provides for a wired alternative. Huffman also requested the California Council on Science and Technology examine the federal limits on radiation from wireless devices, including smart meters, to determine if they adequately protect the public.

Alternative systems exist, which are wired, making them “cleaner,” more secure and safer. Many businesses, multi-residential units, and cities such as Chattanooga are using them.

If you want the wired option:  Urge San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors (sbaker@co.slo.ca.us, (805) 781-5450), and our elected officials to support Assembly Bill 37, and to halt the installation of wireless smart meters until AB 37 is enacted into law. Write a letter to Huffman and express support for AB 37 (lawrence.cooper@asm.ca.gov.

Ask PG&E to delay installation on your home: 1 (866) 743-0263. Learn more at: emfsafetynetwork.org

Judy Vick is a community activist and former candidate for county supervisor. Judy is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and the patients’ rights advocate for San Luis Obispo County Behavioral Health. Contact her at: venturemind@hotmail.com  and Facebook page: Stop smart meters SLO County.


52 Comments

  1. tictac1 says:

    Even if the health concerns have no merit, it doesn’t matter.

    The smart meter installations are partially funded by our government. Those are OUR taxes PG&E is using to lay off meter readers. Using the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to layoff thousands of workers runs contrary to the intent of the law!

    On the practical side, if you do not want a smart meter, simply call PG&E and ask them to note on your account that you have a pit bull, they will not enter the yard. It has worked for months for me!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

    • Kettel says:

      Word from a SLO County meter reader (not me) is all displaced meter readers get new jobs elseware within PG&E.

      As a side note PG&E has really blown the public relations on the smart meter issue. For example the cell phone type transmitter will be on the pole ( one per 5 -8 homes) not in the meter, in the urban areas.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  2. Paperboys says:

    Judy Vick is also one of the people who fights against cell phone towers.
    She is pretty sharp and cunning in her arguments, conveniently leaving out stuff that doesn’t jibe with her POV and over-emphasizing results of a single study, somehow extrapolating that out into some major health crisis.
    Are smart meters dangerous? Maybe, but I don’t know. I will say this, if they turn out to be harmful, PG&E and the PUC will have a whole lot of explaining to do and PG&E will have a lot of checks to write to the people who do get sick.
    But I’d bet a wall street bonus that this too will pass, just like the worries over saccharine, EMFs from high voltage wires, cell phones causing brain cancer, fluoride in the water supply, childhood vaccinations, and every other gizmo, gadget, food or drink that’s gets linked by one study or another to causing cancer.
    It’s one of my pet peeves that the media will take the published results of a single study done by a bunch of kids at some college, as Gospel and report the findings as if they are absolute truths, instead of what is most likely a limited, focused study probably paid for by whatever industry or company benefits the most from the information.
    Like the one a few years back that said drinking red wine every day could maybe possibly be good for your heart health, never mind that your liver and kidneys might go sour, your heart will benefit from drinking a modest amount of red wine everyday — paid for by E&J Gallo…
    The one consistent conclusion drawn by all scientific studies is that “more study is needed.”
    I always crack up when I see the TV commercials for various drugs and the disclaimers and warnings on side effects goes on for most of the commercial. Like the new medicine for gout that actually says it could cause gout flare ups.
    As for the smart meters, PG&E maybe should do more testing before deciding to install them throughout their territory. Maybe pick a relatively small town and install the meters everywhere, monitor them, study the people’s health and then decide whether to install them everywhere. Give the town’s residents 50% off their electric bills while the study is going on.
    Of course then Judy Vick would probably write a column arguing against “human guinea pigs” being exploited by PG&E. There is just no winning with the “true believers.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 4

  3. willie says:

    One public official (don’t recall the name) suggest a fee($) to op out.
    Thats like the phone company charging you to be unlisted.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2

    • ccreader says:

      Not exactly. The phone company not listing your number shouldn’t cost them any more than listing it, other than perhaps one time a few seconds of some operators time to update your entry in their database, so them charging you a fee for being unlisted is not justified.

      However, if you “opt out” of having a smart meter, you are basically requiring PG&E to send a meter reader all the way to just your home every month just to read your meter, which is costs them maintenance and gas for a vehicle, and up to 30 minutes of someone’s time every month, just to get information that they can get for a fraction of that cost from everyone else. Personally, I don’t mind having a smart meter, and I don’t want part of the money I pay for my power bill going to subsidize meter readers for the few people that are paranoid about smart meters.

      Or perhaps giving a discount to everyone who has a smart meter for helping save PG&E some money would be more agreeable to people?

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 9

      • willie says:

        Wouldn’t it be smarter to quadrant off the city and ground wire each sector of community meter relaying data to an off site Smart-meter area and from there wireless transmit to PGE rather than so many mini-transmitters scattered all over? There would be less potential transfer errors and maintenance can be easier localized.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  4. danika says:

    Happy New Year everyone. Thank you for an interesting, informative, infuriating, and challenging 2010 here on the postboard of CCN. I have truly enjoyed your opinions along with my morning tea, both those I agreed and disagreed with. I hope 2011 brings you all good health, good opportunities, and good sleep. Blessings.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  5. Susan says:

    Visit http://www.thecanaryreport.org/2010/12/28/smart-meter-alert/ and http://chej.org/blog/2010/12/30/civil-disobedience-escalates-over-smart-meters/ to read more about people who are ill from Smart Meters, view a doctor’s letter demanding removal of the meter from my home that was denied by a Sempra Utility, SDG&E (San Diego, CA), what is happening with Smart Meter resistence and activism. All environmental groups need to wake up to the FACT that they are being duped by industry, Smart Meters are a vehicle for making billions of dollars off consumers and the telecom industry, by overcharging and selling bandwidth, at the expense of our health and safety. The intentions of Congress are being thwarted by the use of cheaper, made-in-China, wireless meters vs. safe, shielded cables to establish the Smart Grid. Visit http://www.emfsafetynetwork.org for more info.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 3

  6. ds_gray says:

    this is a misdirected argument. risks to health aside, the real reason PG&E wants these meters on our homes and businesses is to MAKE MORE MONEY. The company wants to charge more for the same product, but because the price is set by the PUC, the only way to accomplish the goal is to find a new revenue stream. That stream is thus: With a so-called ‘smart meter’ the utility can charge more for KW used during peak usage times. That is the sole reason for these meters. They aren’t cheap, and the only way this makes any business sense at all is to be able to justify the expense to the board of directors because they will recover the cost quickly.

    The utility builds a straw man argument trying to sell us idiot consumers that these meters will help us save energy (outright lie), so the activists build another straw man argument (health risks, inaccurate billing) to combat the first. You are all missing the point. The utility is trying to bilk more money from us, and they think this is the solution. PG&E has gone to extremes – even spying on activist blogs and message boards – to try and maintain control of PR. If you want to kill this project, your best chance is legislative.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 6

    • bobfromsanluis says:

      ds: I don’t think that is necessarily a misdirected argument per se; it is very possible that there are real health risks involved with this technology and those concerns do need to be addressed. I do agree with your premise however that this is all just about more profit for PG & E. I do believe as you do that the goal here is for a fixed commodity (electricity) to be given a more plausible reason for being able to charge more for usage during peak hours. Another possibility is that PG & E will be able to remotely “turn off” your power if your bill is not paid, unlike how they have to send out a service person to knock on your door to give you a last chance to pay your past due bill before they do turn off your service if you cannot make an immediate payment at that moment, which will result in not only saving the cost of the service person and the vehicle that they drive, but eventually being able to tighten up the length of being past due to the point of letting you know that if your bill is not paid by a certain time on a certain date, ZAP, your power is off immediately with no recourse other than for you to pay your bill via your phone or at a pay station and then calling them to give them your receipt info and then they can turn your power back on immediately as well. I would venture to guess that at any time of the month they must have quite a few customers who are in a past due situation and by having the ability to turn off the power remotely their revenue stream will be greatly enhanced as well.
      As far as legislative responses, while controlling smart meters is a really really good idea, another good idea is to pursue the same model they use in Germany where the utilities have to buy consumer produced power (roof top solar) at current market rates, thereby enabling customers to not only get their own power at a reduced rate, and pay off their systems much sooner, but possibly even make a profit from their roof top systems. We pay the amount we are charged because we have no choice in the matter if we want electricity and live in a city; those that live in more rural areas do have the choice of going “off grid” , but those of us living in residential areas have to pay “market rate”, so why shouldn’t the utilities have to as well?

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

      • amusselm says:

        I already thought that there was a law requiring the utilities to buy power from customers. Smart meters might allow the implementation of automatic grid control on these small-scale power-plants.

        ds_gray is fundamentally correct in PG&E’s motivations. However, this also means that the retail rate will can more accurately reflect the cost of buying and delivering power. The wholesale price of power fluctuates throughout the day. PG&E pays a premium to plants that can ‘throttle up’ quickly to meet the load. As a result, I still think that smart meters are still a good idea. The current system does not reward avoiding peak-usage times. As a result, those who avoid using power at peak periods are paying for those who don’t. With the smart meters, the retail price of power will more accurately reflect the wholesale price.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 3

        • BeenThereDoneThat says:

          Good point. It’s the same as auto insurance. If you live in a zip code with a higher instance of accidents you pay a higher premium. Same here.

          It is a know fact that, yes if you use during peak times you pay more. Off times less. Easy enough for me and most people I would think. If you are at work during the day you won’t be using. On weekends, it will give you motivation to get outside. If you want to sit inside and watch t.v., then you will be paying more.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

        • bobfromsanluis says:

          You are correct that the law requires that excess generated electricity is “bought” back by the utility companies, but the rate that they are required to pay is much much too low so that there is absolutely no incentive for anyone to generate more than they will most likely use. This is a built-in give back to the utility companies so that they stay in control of where they get the power that is fed into the grid. If the utility companies had to pay full market price for any and all electricity that is fed into the grid there would be a major incentive for those with the where-with-all to invest in larger roof top systems for their homes and/or businesses because they would know that they would recoup their investment in a very short time and any excess generation after that would be “profit”; but the utilities have been very good at lobbying to keep the required amount that they pay for roof top generation artificially low to prevent just such eventuality.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

          • pasowino says:

            Having looked into roof top solar on my house and currently waiting on quotes for my solar system, it makes sense to allow customers to sell back any extra power that they generate, but it doesn’t make sense that they should pay me the retail rate or “full market price” as was referred above. Why should any company pay a retail price for something that they could buy cheaper at a wholesale price. So, with that said, I do believe that PG&E and the other utilities are buying back extra solar generation at the wholesale price, which seems completely fair.

            To draw some comparison (albeit strange), it would be like someone with chickens taking their eggs into Safeway or Vons and demanding that they store buy those eggs for $3.99 per dozen. The store would surely go out of business quickly if they were buying their eggs for $3.99 and selling them for $3.99 and expecting somehow to profit.

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

            • bobfromsanluis says:

              pasowino: “Full market price” in how I meant it to be, would not require that the utilities pay “retail” for roof top solar feed ins to the grid; what I was trying to illustrate is that once you have fed back into the grid as much as you would typically use in a month, anything extra you fed into the grid is essentially “free” to the utilities since they do not have to pay you for any excess power you generate; you do get a credit against future bills, but there is no way in our current policies for home or business owners who generate excess (meaning more than they will use) to be paid for the power they are feeding into the grid. Does that really seem fair to you? If you really want to do a little research, take a look at what Germany is doing in regards to “feed in tariffs” for their roof top solar program. Both Germany and Australia have a government involved roof top solar program, but, since Germany is so far advanced in how they invest in PV technology and their feed in tariffs, Germany has more than 3 1/2 times more power feed into their grid via roof top systems, and don’t we both know that Australia gets a lot more sun than Germany does. I applaud you for investigating solar roof top for your house, I hope you can swing the deal, you will be much better off for it in the long run. Good luck.

              Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

            • bobfromsanluis says:

              Oh yeah, pasowino, to put my point more in line with your “strange” comparison, how about you have a set egg usage with Safeway or Vons, where you usually buy, say three dozen eggs a month, and then you buy your own chickens and you end up producing more than the three dozen eggs a month that you need; in the current form of agreement with the PUC and the utilities, you would then take any excess eggs you produce to Safeway or Vons and simply give them to them for no monies what so ever; if the comparison is to go full circle then, you would get a “credit” from the store so that in the future, IF you ever needed eggs from them again, you could apply your credit for those eggs. Does that really make sense to you?

              Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  7. Al says:

    OK, I haven’t read all the posts but one thing is for sure… Smart meters are more accurate than dial meters and with the replacement (along with elimination of reader jobs) the profits for PG&E will go up!! (no more slow meters) Can this gathered information be messed with and or hacked? I suspect this is a large issue and real since PG&E has little oversight in this area. Then again if you use it you need to pay for it. The problem lies in the rate structure which is VERY unrealistic considering modern usage.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

    • amusselm says:

      Well… I personally think it’s possible to develop a secure meter. PG&E has every reason to at least make sure that the meter’s transmissions are authenticated. They wouldn’t want a customer covering the box in grounded tin-foil then transmitting much lower-than-actual consumption numbers.

      If I were doing it, I would use public-private key cryptography. The meter could have a public key stored in flash. It would use this key to encrypt the data that is being transmitted. For added security against a dictionary attack, the meter could salt the data with a GPS derived time stamp. Use a decant-sized key and a good (publicly known) algorithm and a 3rd party would be unable to read the data, even if they dump the firmware of the device. The presence of these keys would also mean that the customer would have to physically tamper with his or her meter in order impersonate it.

      Now, did they do that? Well, I don’t know.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  8. ccreader says:

    I think it is amazing that people are so up in arms about these smart meters, but apparently don’t care about the other real health risks that PG&E is exposing you to. PG&E has put up huge roadblocks towards the implementation of renewable energy and instead continues to use coal power plants that pollute and harm us all. Let’s not forget the many environmental catastrophes that PG&E accidental and intentional illegal pollution has caused. and how about their many miles of dangerous gas pipelines that recently took the lives of several bay area residents in a massive explosion.

    PG&E is probably delighted that all the sheep have jumped on the smart meter bandwagon and are ignoring their real sins that are killing us on a daily basis. The fact is your risk of health problems from smart meters is a fraction of your risk of health problems from PG&E’s polluting power plants, radiating transmission lines, and dangerous gas pipelines. Please get a grip people, and focus on the real problems with PG&E.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 4

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