California: a future with ... analog meters

CPUC proceedings turn to cost allocation

Phil Carson | Feb 01, 2012

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Today we close out the week's columns on the California Public Utility Commission's decision yesterday to approve analog meters as the opt-out option for customers of Pacific Gas & Electric.

A few points may be appropriate to addend to Tuesday's column, "PG&E Smart Meter Opt-Out: Decision by Regulators," and yesterday's column, "California: Mob Rule on Analog Opt-out Solution?"

I won't say "final" points because PG&E is merely one of three major California investor-owned utilities and some of these issues continue to surface across the country. Indeed, readers will note that the issue of cost allocation for opt-outs—should those opting out pay or should all customers pay for their costs?—and whether entire communities can opt-out remain to be determined for PG&E by the CPUC.

First, let's revisit my headline reference to "mob rule" and the CPUC's decision to jettison both PG&E's and its own preferred solution, instead adopting the complainants' preferred solution to leave analog meters in place.

There are many practical reasons why a smart meter with the radio off or no communication module at all is far preferable to an analog meter, particularly in the former's ability to collect interval data for manual retrieval. The radio frequency radiation exposure argument falls apart when science is involved, because the cited devices emit so little and  because so many ordinary household sources give off equivalent levels, all well below all thresholds set by standards setting organizations.

But this argument is not governed by science, it is governed by emotion coupled with zero scientific evidence. The trend is a disturbingly familiar one—that a few individuals or ad hoc groups can thwart the will of the vast majority on an issue critical to modern society. No doubt  those rejoicing in the CPUC's decision are oblivious to the damage caused to the purpose of interval metering and to the damage to their own environmental goals.

Now, to "mob rule." I think it's a fair question to ask whether the CPUC displayed the most selfless and perceptive approach to the customer service it touts when it allowed complainants to win on analog meters as the opt-out option. Or, did the CPUC simply cave because the time and will to reach a decision in the matter were eroding under the sheer weight of complainants' noise levels and rejection of reason and scientific evidence?

I think the importance of this question will be apparent to most readers interested in public discourse and the means by which a self-governing people actually accomplish their goals.

Now, to the complainants, who may be emboldened to think that they've scored some sort of victory, when all they've done is set back California's progress in cutting demand for power, for empowering themselves and for rational civic discourse. 

It would be naïve to think that individuals and groups will be satisfied with yesterday's decision or any future decisions that may even go their way. So it will be intriguing to see the reaction among these objectors, who may push so hard for absolute "victory" that they end up enraging the majority and marginalizing themselves. I'd guess that that's the ultimate outcome, if we're lucky.

In this particular case, it is no stretch at all to consider the possibility that very few of the objectors actually believe their own rhetoric about the purported harm of RF emissions that has no basis in scientific fact. Anyone with a passing knowledge of science or biology knows that you cannot prove a negative, and that standards bodies have the statutory and moral obligation to monitor ongoing research, should changes in standards be necessary. But in PG&E's case, there would seem to be a disproportionate number of electro-magnetic frequency sufferers in its service territory—in fact, by my back-of-the-napkin math, more than in all other areas of the country combined. Everyone, including the frothing objectors, need to ask themselves why. And answer honestly.

The CPUC, however, has wisely inserted into the record the appropriate language to apprise all parties that it can return to reexamine its decision in light of changed circumstances. Should cynical opponents use the opt-out option to harm PG&E's ability to meet California's energy policies and goals, I can foresee the CPUC reversing yesterday's decision. Indeed, if PG&E can show that older analog meters no longer accurately measure power usage, that would be another instance in which the many subsidize the few, for no good reason.  

But don't take any of this from me, because although I've consistently provided links to bona fide source material, I may have only faked those sources and constructed a massive hoax to mislead readers. Besides, I'm obviously in the pocket of electric utilities and blindly cheerlead for their every ruinous mistake. R-r-r-right? So goes the logic of some of the correspondence that I receive on this issue.

So turn instead to the Environmental Defense Fund, which yesterday included this paragraph in its explanation of the CPUC's decision in the PG&E case.

"Smart meters are a key component of the smart grid," the EDF wrote. "They unlock air quality, climate pollution and public health benefits by enabling two-way, real-time communication that gives households, small businesses, manufacturers  and farmers (and the utilities that serve them) the data they need to cut energy use and electricity costs."

On the health impact of RF emissions, the EDF consulted the World Health Organization, the California Council of Science and Technology and an independent expert, Leeka Kheifets, a UCLA professor who sits on the Standing Committee on Epidemiology for the International Commission on Non-ionizing Radiation Protection.

I think readers know the experts' conclusions. Some readers understand and accept scientific evidence, while others reject anything and everything that stands in the way of having their own way, consequences be damned. If California is ungovernable, if the United States of America is sliding into global irrelevance, look no further for the cause. There are some fundamental issues of self-governance underlying this story.

Phil Carson
Editor-in-chief
Intelligent Utility Daily
pcarson@energycentral.com
303-228-4757

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Comments

Thank you for the sanity!

A very refreshing article - I couldn't agree more.  I just wrote an article for my blog (http://erichgunther.blogspot.com/) with a similar tone.  Coddling the uninformed presents a high cost to society.  Internally we have referred to this disturbing trend as FUDI DUDI - Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt and Ignorance through Dangerous, Unfounded Delusions and Insanity.

Erich

Who pays?

The full allocation of costs for an alternative meter should be paid for by those who request it.  As the smart meters were, and are, a critical portion of "rate structures that reflect the cost of using energy" I would support that a Time of Use meter should be required as part of the package to opt out of the smart meter program.

Mark Miller

Thanks

Thank you for your coverage of this very important decision from the CPUC.  Great articles the past few days!  One thing still confuses me a bit regarding the position on the digital meter, no communication option.  If the people opposed to digital meters truly feel that the RF from the digital meter (no communication) is a health concern, it would make more sense rather than install a new meter to simply remove the meter all together.  The meter and thus the electric service to their home only serves to power devices that would emit a similar or in some cases a greater amount of RF at distances even closer than one would typically be to their outside electric meter.  I completely agree that I am ok with dissenting opinion, but sure would love to see the rhetoric not only agree with scientific fact but also be consistent with their other actions (such as plugging in digital devices in their home using that power coming through the analog meter). 

Also, I wonder if PG&E is able to get a reasonable true up process as part of this CPUC ruling.  Independent research in California and Texas has shown that the analog meters are actually less accurate than the digital meters.  Also, as they age, the analog meters will tend to fail slow (i.e. the customer is paying less).  If PG&E finds one of these analog meters that fails a periodic test because it has slowed down (as mechanical mechanisms can tend to do), I would think that the utility should be entitled to a mechanism to attempt to true up their losses.  Again, great articles.  They are a daily read for me.

Digital Meters vs. Complainants

I suppose in retrospect, it would have been ideal for these smart meters to be manufactured in a different way.  Let the meter collect the interval data onto a hard disk or RAM and only once in a while "boot up" to transmit the data to the Utility.  This would mean the RF signals would only be active during a fraction of the time.  This would mean of course that the poor complainants would probably complain about a headache or lack of sleep for 30 seconds every week or so!

Analog Meters Out Of Production

Another major issues with the analog meters only options is that all the major metering vendors have switched their production lines over to all digital meters.  Since the old analog meters are no longer the main  meter in production, there will likely be an increase in price if the production lines have to be restarted.  There is likely a limited supply of used analog meters due to the AMI initiatives, but most analog meters are removed and then scrapped for the metal and glass. 

 

Richard G. Pate

Pate & Associates, Principal

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As predicted ....

Thanks for your  comments, both of you.

As predicted, the opt-out folks don't want to pay anything for paddling in the other direction. I don't think that's far from saying that I have a quibble with, say, a new road improvement to connect new development to a city or  improving an old road. I don't like it, I'm not going to pay for it, and go take a hike. Right?

I sincerely hope that while this strain in the body politic has some virulence, that it is isolated, limited and soon to wither under the indignation of those of us who accept, as our fellow citizens have for more than two centuries, that you don't get to pick and choose what societal improvements you pay for. It's a package deal.

Again, dissent is welcome, if it's rational and comes with responsibility to participate.

If the issue really is PG&E's heavy hand in attempting to quash municipalization legislation,  then make that the issue and reform the process by which giants ride over individual rights. But don't bite off your nose to spite your face.

The best outcome here would be if opt-outs are limited in scope, analog meters eventually get phased out, and dynamic pricing gets phased in. Then a lot of these EMF symptoms are going to disappear and an interest in home energy management will take their place.

Regards, Phil Carson

Amen

Great week of commentary, Phil.  Thanks for the hard work and insights.  I guess your critics who accuse you of being a shill for utilities missed your many, many pieces on Smart City/Boulder.  I doubt Excelon views you as a shill.

I actually like the analog meter decision to some extent.  While there are issues with it, as you pointed out, there is also some symbolic value in keeping those opt out zealots in the dark ages from an information standpoint.  I hold hope that when all is said and done rationality among the masses will prevail and we will experience only a very small number of isolated and geographically dispersed opt outs.  If I am wrong then there are bigger implications and policy needs to be re-examined.  But if I am right then let those who wish to live in darkness live in that darkness.  There were plenty of opponents of rural electrification back in the day, many expressing irrational fears and conspiracies as a defense against it.  Let the zealots all live in the darkness they seek to surround themselves.  But let them all be assigned the cost of having that privilege.