Power struggle: PG&E fights California towns to install Smart Meters

From Marin Independent Journal

PG&E to defy Fairfax wireless meter ban

by Richard Halstead
January 5, 2017

Michael Peevey listens to testimony in San Francisco in 2014 while he was president of the California Public Utilities Commission. In a 2010 email, he said that if PG&E customers did not want a wireless meter, it would be best to “quietly leave them alone.” (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press) 

A power struggle is shaping up between Fairfax and Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which announced it will resume installing so-called “smart” meters despite a renewed ban imposed by the Town Council.

PG&E has decided to resume installation beginning with 16 customers it says have expressed an interest in getting the meters.

Deanna Contreras, a PG&E spokeswoman, said PG&E sent the customers a letter giving them 30 days notice of its intentions, which they should have received in mid-January.

“We want our customers to know they have a choice; they can opt out,” Contreras said.

She said the first installations should begin within the next couple of weeks.

“This is the just the first wave,” Contreras said.

The new meters are electronic monitoring devices that continuously measure the electricity and natural gas use at households and businesses and relay data to the utility. The goal is to enable power companies to better understand patterns of power consumption throughout the day so they can adjust power generation accordingly.

Critics have raised questions about health risks from the wireless meters and other concerns, such as the potential for invasion of privacy from the hacking of the wireless component of the system.

The Town Council is not acquiescing to PG&E’s plans.

On Wednesday, the council voted unanimously to renew its ban on wireless meters, which was scheduled to expire in March, for another three years. The council also authorized Councilwoman Barbara Coler to write a letter to PG&E CEO Anthony Earley.

“The purpose of the letter is to tell PG&E that, No. 1, our moratorium still remains in effect,” Coler said. “By violating our moratorium, they’re potentially subject to code enforcement.”

PG&E halted installation of the wireless meters in Fairfax and Sebastopol after both municipalities passed ordinances prohibiting them. Fairfax passed its ordinance in 2010. Sebastopol adopted its ban in 2013.

PG&E intends to replace all analog meters in Fairfax and Sebastopol with wireless meters, unless customers officially opt-out.

Contreras said over the next two years, PG&E will seek to convert 6,680 analog meters belonging to some 3,550 customers in Fairfax. Each customer will receive a pre-installation letter 30 days ahead of when their change is expected to occur.

PG&E installed approximately 426 wireless meters in Fairfax for some 210 customers before it responded to pressure to stop. Currently, 218 customers in Fairfax have chosen to participate in the wireless meter opt-out program.

Opt-out charges

Most customers who opted out will be required to pay a one-time $75 fee and an ongoing monthly charge of $10. Low-income customers pay an initial fee of $10 and a monthly charge of $5.

Coler said a townwide ban is necessary because even if some residents want wireless meters there could be a potential health effect for their neighbors. Some people have attributed migraines, nausea and other health issues to exposure to wireless meters.

In 2011, when the debate over smart meters was raging, U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, whose district includes Marin, sought expert advice on the health issue. The California Council on Science and Technology concluded that federal safety standards governing wireless meters are adequate to protect the public from the known effects of radio frequency waves, but added that there had been insufficient research to determine if other health effects exist.

In a statement announcing its intention to resume wireless meter installations in Fairfax and Sebastopol, PG&E said the reason it is acting now is that all appeals and litigation over the matter have been denied.

Coler said that is untrue. She said a request for a rehearing on wireless meters is still pending with the California Public Utilities Commission, and said she will stress that fact in her letter to PG&E.

“By just going ahead with their program, they’re basically rendering something mute that hasn’t been decided by the CPUC,” Coler said. “I hope PG&E takes a pause and realizes we do mean business.”

˜Back-door dealings”

Sandra Maurer of Sebastopol, director of the EMF Safety Network, which has a rehearing request pending at the CPUC, said, “We did not get a fair hearing. There were many ex parte violations and back-door dealings with PG&E.”

In early 2015, some 65,000 emails released by the CPUC showed that former CPUC President Michael Peevey, who retired in 2014, communicated with PG&E managers improperly on a range of issues. Maurer said wireless meters was one of the issues.

“I researched them,” Maurer said. “I wrote a paper on it.”

On July 2, 2010, Brian Cherry, then vice president of regulatory affairs for PG&E, wrote in an email that Peevey was grumbling about efforts to delay wireless meter implementation. Cherry wrote, “(Peevey) implied that this wasn’t going to happen and that by the time the Commission got around to acting on it, we would have installed all of our meters.”

In a Sept. 3, 2010, email, Peevey wrote to Cherry, “If it were my decision I would let anyone who wants to keep their old meter keep it, if they claim they suffer from EMF and/or related electronic-related illnesses and they can produce a doctor’s letter saying so (or expressing concern about the likelihood of suffering same). I would institute such a policy quietly and solely on an individual basis. There really are people who feel pain, etc., related to EMF, etc., and rather than have them becoming hysterical, etc., I would quietly leave them alone.”

Sebastopol’s status

Sebastopol’s city council, however, appears unconcerned about the prospect of wireless meter installation resuming there.

“There has been no discussion by the council whatsoever,” Sebastopol City Manager Larry McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said he suspended enforcement of Sebastopol’s wireless meter ban within days of its enactment after PG&E threatened to sue the city, and the city received a chastising letter from the CPUC.

McLaughlin said the CPUC didn’t threaten to take action, “but it was kind of implicit that we had exceeded our jurisdiction in their opinion,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said PG&E threatened to sue after a Sebastopol resident called police when a PG&E contractor attempted to install a smart meter in their home.

“PG&E said they were concerned about subjecting their contractors and employees to such confrontations,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said he and Sebastopol’s police chief met with PG&E representatives at that time. Sebastopol decided to suspend enforcement of its ban on wireless meters, and PG&E agreed to suspend installation of residential wireless meters in Sebastopol for an indefinite period of time.

McLaughlin said a small group of residents has requested that the council begin enforcing its ban, but McLaughlin, who opposed the ban from the first, said, “I don’t believe it is any more legal now than it was when it was adopted.”

Contreras said PG&E has completed its installation of wireless meters throughout Marin. So far, about 3 percent of PG&E’s residential customers in Marin, some 3,840 homes have chosen to pay extra to keep their analog meters, Contreras said. She said that throughout PG&E’s service territory, 54,000 customers have opted out of wireless meter installation. http://www.marinij.com/business/20170205/pgampe-to-defy-fairfax-wireless-meter-ban

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