Pacific Gas and Electric Co. customers afraid of the radiation from the company’s wireless SmartMeter may soon have a choice:
Accept the device as is. Or ask PG&E to turn off the meter’s transmitter – and pay higher monthly bills as a result. As much as $20 more per month.
Under pressure from state regulators, PG&E introduced its long-awaited SmartMeter opt-out plan Thursday, designed to answer the fears of people who consider the radiation from cell phones, laptops and other wireless devices to be a health threat. The utility, based in San Francisco, has faced growing protests over the new electricity and gas meters, which PG&E is installing throughout Northern and Central California.
In a bid to defuse the controversy, the company suggested in November that it might offer customers a way to opt out of the $2.2 billion program. The president of the California Public Utilities Commission ordered PG&E this month to submit its plan by Thursday.
But the company’s proposal, which would need the commission’s approval to take effect, only angered critics further.
“We consider PG&E’s proposal to be one more false solution,” said Joshua Hart, with the group Stop Smart Meters. “We need to have public health hearings to get to the bottom of this and, in the meantime, we need to stop installing these meters. It’s insane.”
Under PG&E’s plan, the company would continue to install electricity and gas SmartMeters on its customers’ homes – whether those customers wanted the devices or not. Customers would, however, have the option of getting the new meters’ transmitters disabled, cutting off the wireless signals. Customers who have already received a SmartMeter would have the same choice.
But the choice would come at a cost. PG&E would charge for sending a technician to turn off the transmitter. The company also would add a new monthly fee to the customer’s bill. The utility predicts that as many as 145,800 customers would choose to turn off the signal.
Under one payment plan proposed by PG&E, customers would pay $270 up front, and face a $14 fee on their monthly bills. Or if they preferred a lower initial cost, customers could spend $135 to have the transmitter switched off and pay a $20 fee each month.
“For those folks who don’t want to participate, there are additional costs, and this will help recuperate those costs,” said company spokesman Jeff Smith.
For example, meter readers would have to check each opt-out household’s electricity and gas usage every month. Fully operational SmartMeters cut the need for meter readers by sending data to the utility via wireless communications.
Finally, opt-out customers could face an “exit fee” if they ever moved to another home. PG&E would charge them to reactivate the transmitter on the SmartMeter at their old residence, although the exact cost has not been determined.
Before Thursday, SmartMeter critics already viewed the possibility of an opt-out program with skepticism. Homeowners trying to keep their houses relatively free of wireless signals, they said, could still be exposed to radiation from their neighbors’ SmartMeters, if those neighbors didn’t opt out as well.
The idea that wireless radiation can harm human health remains in fierce dispute. A SmartMeter health study commissioned by the state this year found that the devices do not hurt people in any way proved by science, but left open the possibility that ill effects could be proved in the future.
Many critics also have insisted that any opt-out alternative be free.
Legislation pending in Sacramento would force PG&E to offer its customers an alternative to wireless SmartMeters.
But Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who introduced that legislation, said Thursday that PG&E’s proposal missed the point. PG&E customers should have a choice of technologies, being able to pick between wireless and wired SmartMeters. But they should still be connected to the evolving smart grid, he said.
“PG&E, through this proposal, clearly is hoping that a) not a lot of people will choose to do this, because it doesn’t make a lot of sense to do it, and b) people who choose this will eventually turn around and choose to flip on the radio,” Huffman said. “It’s clear to me that this solution from PG&E isn’t going to cut it.”
E-mail David R. Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org.