Smart Meters Matter

First, the easy part: PG&E wants to replace the aging mechanisms that measure electric and natural gas usage with SmartMeters. These digital devices will eliminate human meter readers by electronically transmitting power usage info to a nearby transmitter that, in turn, sends the data to a regional office.

SmartMeters—and similar devices being installed by utility companies throughout the U.S.—will eventually give utility companies and their customers an accurate way to analyze power usage, leading, ideally, to greater energy efficiency. “Within a decade, these devices will all be connected to a nationwide smart grid,” says PG&E spokesperson Katie Romans, “that will store and evenly distribute energy, including renewables and that will greatly reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. It’s very exciting.”

Now, the hard part: many people in Marin appear ready to take up arms to prevent PG&E from installing SmartMeters on or near their homes. “We need to stand up to PG&E,” declared Fairfax Mayor Lew Tremaine at a July meeting of the town council. “We need to say no, not here, we don’t want these meters in our community.” Later, the council adopted a 12-month moratorium prohibiting PG&E installation of any SmartMeters or related equipment within Fairfax town limits.

The county Board of Supervisors, Marin Association of Realtors and several Marin cities have also asked PG&E to halt “deployment” of SmartMeters until further study is completed. The Wall Street Journal has published articles questioning the value of the concept; locally, the Marin I.J. has done likewise—both employing the headline, “Smart Meters, A Dumb Idea.”

Nevertheless, PG&E intends to install 9.3 million SmartMeters statewide at a cost of $2.2 billion. As of late August, approximately 20,000 digital meters had been affixed to Marin homes and businesses. “We still have 195,000 to go,” says Romans. She said the utility company has “adjusted installation schedules,” due to concerns expressed by many Marin residents.

So, what are the downsides of SmartMeters? An early concern over accuracy—namely that power costs rise following installation—was recently laid to rest with release by the California Public Utilities Commission of a four-month independent study that concluded, “(SmartMeters) are consistent with industry standards and are performing accurately.”

A second concern is that the signal from the meter attached to a house or business to the nearby relay device could be “hacked" into and provide vital information to someone wanting to learn a ratepayer’s traveling, sleeping, even bathing habits. “I’m not at all concerned about that,” says Bruce Ackerman of Fairfax, an MIT-educated electrical engineer whose 30-year business career includes work with microwave power measurement and signal processing software. “The signal will be highly secure; each meter will have its own dual-key encryption code.”

A third worry about SmartMeters is health related. “This is the greatest threat ever to our existence on planet Earth,” said Santa Cruz filmmaker Taale Rosellina at a recent CPUC hearing in Sacramento where several Marin residents testified against the new devices. “It will multiply by 100 million times the world’s electromagnetic field.” Rosellina and others are concerned about the radio frequency waves, or EMF, given off by SmartMeters as they wirelessly transmit data to neighborhood relay devices. Microwave ovens, garage door openers and cell phones emit similar radio waves.

A CPUC analysis of SmartMeters concluded that timewise such transmissions will average, in total, no more than 45 seconds per day. “That would be the EMF equivalent of someone standing just outside your home and speaking on a cell phone for a total of 45 seconds over a 24-hour period,” says Ackerman.

Still, anti-SmartMeter activists maintain those 45 seconds of radio transmission, multiplied by tens of thousands of homes, constitute a health hazard resulting in such maladies as migraines, nausea, and tissue and bone degeneration. In May, after an extensive study regarding the effects of electromagnetic fields on humans, the World Health Organization concluded, “With 4.6 billion mobile phone users worldwide, to date, no adverse health effects have been established for their use.”

This is a major topic of discussion in cities across America, and nowhere, it appears, is the dialogue more intense than in Marin. At stake is the modernization of America’s electrical grid. Marin must enter this discussion with an open mind and listen to expert testimony with an eye toward creating an efficient and sustainable nationwide energy system. That’s my point of view. What's yours?

E-mail jwood@marinmagazine.com