SMART GRID:

Calif. agency mulls 'opt out' or wired substitutes as fallout persists

SAN FRANCISCO -- A burst of opposition to smart meters in a Northern California county appears to have turned heads in the state commission with jurisdiction over the emerging technology, with at least two prominent officials yesterday signaling they would consider letting consumers opt out.

In separate interviews, California Public Utilities Commission members Nancy Ryan and Timothy Simon said they were open to looking at new policies that would either let ratepayers reject smart meter installation outright or pursue wired rather than wireless connections.

Their comments came in reaction to public pressure from a small but vocal group of residents and lawmakers in Marin County who fear the meters might be dangerous because of the electromagnetic waves they emit. Though the science on the question appears to indicate no health threat, the Marin County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance last week that deems the installation of smart meters a misdemeanor (Greenwire, Jan. 5).

The investor-owned utility that serves the region, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., has said it will continue with its rollout of smart meters despite the vote, which only applies to unincorporated areas of the county. Still, officials at the CPUC were taking the developments seriously during a monthly commission meeting here, which featured more emotional public testimony attacking the technology.

Commissioner Ryan said she was open to some sort of opt-out provision.

"I've always been of the opinion that there should be some consideration of opting out, provided people pay their full freight," she said.

Ryan added that she has spoken to California Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D), who represents Marin, about the possibility of creating a local assessment district so Marin residents can pay for wired meters. Huffman has authored legislation that would authorize wired as well as wireless installations.

Commissioner Simon also said he was open to changes. But he also noted that only wireless installations have yet been authorized by the agency.

"The question becomes, if a ratepayer wants a wired meter, how do we work it into our rate design?" he said.

Simon added that he was sympathetic to smart meter opponents but said that their relatively small numbers should be taken into account.

"We have installed 10 million meters, and this is the only group from Marin County that has staged a protest based on radio frequency," he said. "Why is it just isolated to their group?"

Yet at least one Marin County resident present at the meeting was insistent that she had already experienced symptoms that she attributed to wireless smart meters. San Francisco resident Sudi Scull appeared before the commission yesterday to say she was hurting due to electromagnetic emissions.

"My health has taken a dramatic turn for the worse," Scull said. "I had no Christmas lights this year; I can't even play my radio. I am in some degree of migraine much of the time, and I have 40 percent chance of a stroke."

Experts weigh in

Speaking at a separate event across town, former CPUC Commissioner Diane Gruenich said the commission and PG&E may be at fault for not doing a good enough job when it came to communicating with ratepayers about smart meters and their potential dangers.

Gruenich, who recently left the commission, explained that the reason the commission authorized smart meters in the first place was to benefit the "utility side of the meter," as opposed to the consumer side. Smart meters, especially at this early stage, are much more likely to result in cost savings and better monitoring on the utility side, with the upside not yet clear for many consumers.

"There was not a good enough job of explaining," she said during an appearance at the Commonwealth Club. "It's really being used to enhance the efficiency and operation of the larger utility system."

Mark Duvall, director of electric transportation and energy storage at the Electric Power Research Institute, agreed that the negative press means utilities and regulators should take the issue seriously. But in the same breath, he argued that all research done to date on the subject indicates there is no real or present threat.

"Yes, there are some hiccups," he said, noting that utilities had installed as many as 6,000 meters a day in some areas without much problem. "But you need to look at all the societal benefits. These are significant technological accomplishments."

As for wired versus wireless, Duvall was dismissive, saying, "It would be very costly very quickly," while Gruenich noted that the CPUC had not yet considered the alternative.

"I do know that we don't have any cost estimates of what that would involve," she said. "I don't even know if that's technologically feasible."

In subsequent interviews, both Duvall and Gruenich admitted the issue is not likely to go away. Just as important is a shifting political dynamic, as California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) may move soon to appoint someone like former California Energy Commission Commissioner John Geesman as the new president of the agency to replace Michael Peevey, who many view as sympathetic to the investor-owned utilities he oversees.

Geesman, for his part, has been downright hostile to PG&E since leaving the CEC, blogging extensively last year against the utility's attempt to stifle community power in Marin under a ballot proposition that ultimately failed on the June 2010 ballot. He has refused to comment on his possible appointment.

Neither Duvall nor Gruenich would speculate on the new direction of the commission under Brown. But Gruenich acknowledged that the new president, if there is one, will have to deal with smart meters.

"If consumers do not see the value in implementing smart meters, we're going to see some problems," she said. "This is a significant issue."