From health claims to Orwellian accusations, CPUC decision stings some

PG&E opt-out option doesn't soothe anti-smart meter antagonists

Kate Rowland | Feb 02, 2012


As I have noted before, a critical piece of the intelligent utility is the intelligent consumer. In my opinion, the latter was sorely lacking in the public input portion of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) Feb. 1 business meeting.

As I watched the video coverage yesterday, I was struck nearly dumb by some of the continued public outrage against the CPUC's proposed decision on agenda item 28, the modification of Pacific Gas and Electric Company's (PG&E's) smart meter program.

Any good debater knows that it's imperative to keep emotion out of the argument. And yet, high emotions (and, in at least one case, downright delusion) ruled the day as nearly 60 people stood up to speak, and many ran over their one-minute time allotment.

As I listened, I realized that not one word of what PG&E and other utilities in California (not to mention the rest of the country) have been trying to do to educate customers has penetrated even the first layer of understanding for these particular folks. They know what they know, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

Awhile back, some PG&E customers told the CPUC that they would pay to get their analog meters back. Fair, given that meter readers will need to be paid to read those meters, and PG&E will have to run two different billing systems, one for analog customers, and one for smart meter customers.

On Feb. 1, these same folks cried foul, declaring an initial charge to opt out ($75 for most customers, $10 for low-income customers) and a monthly fee ($10 for most customers, $5 for low-income customers) is "rather undemocratic," "discriminatory," "extortion," and, at the end of the proceeding, after the vote, "a crime against humanity." (The last screamed out, over and over, at the top of the protestor's lungs, until the room was cleared.)

PG&E and the CPUC have operated in good faith in this issue. Smart meter installations were put on hold while the opt-out option was considered, and in some places, smart meters have been replaced by analog meters as requested.

The hour-and-a-half public comment period was filled with accusations against PG&E and the CPUC, as well as lengthy descriptions of health ailments that purported resulted thanks to the smart meters. As my colleague Phil Carson so astutely noted yesterday: "(I)n PG&E's case, there would seem to be a disproportionate number of electro-magnetic frequency sufferers in its service territory--in fact ... more than in all other areas of the country combined."

One speaker told the CPUC that there would be more health issue complaints, as well, because a lot of people don't yet know they're suffering from it.

It seems apropos to quote Roger Rabbit here: "Puhleeze!" Where is the documented evidence?

But that wasn't even the worst of it. Between health complaints writ large, the public comments got Orwellian. Here, word for word, is what one man testified, and while there is no credence whatsoever to any of his claims, I believe that it is important for utilities across the country to realize there are still people out there who believe what this man does. He said:

"In my opinion, and bolstered by a lot of evidence, PG&E is not all about money. The smart meter program also has a data component to it. For all of the data from these meters is being put into databases, permanent databases, which will never be surrendered, and which is a direct violation of everybody's right not to have unreasonable search.

"The smart meter program conforms to the engineering descriptions of the political philosophy of technocracy, which as created in the '30s. It's really eerie the way it does. These meters have been rolled out all over the world as a way of controlling the population.

"That was the specific requirement from technocracy, and it is being implemented now. It's unconstitutional, and it goes way beyond the health implications which are also hideous. So people should not be paying an extra fee not to be monitored by the technocratic system."

Where do I even start?

Utilities, if there are still people out there that believe this conspiracy theory, then you've got a lot more consumer education you need to be doing, post-haste. What is it they think is being collected besides energy usage? And what do they think is going to be done with the information, such as it is, that is being collected? And how is that information going to be used to "control the population"?

There were other equally confusing accusations levelled, as well. One speaker accused the utility of being "capitalistic". Ummm, yup, that's the definition of an investor-owned business. But that has nothing to do with the fact that it costs money to create and deliver energy and to deliver services, and those costs need to be recouped, whether the utility is an investor-owned utility, a municipally owned utility, or a cooperatively owned utility.

In a perfect world, electricity, natural gas and water would all be free. This isn't a perfect world. In this world, we're trying to keep the prices down, championing energy efficiency, and trying to do more with less. Utilities across the country are trying to encourage their customers to use less of their product. Capitalism has nothing to do with it. Keeping the lights on, and the water running, is of higher import, straight across the board.

Kate Rowland
Editor-in-chief, Intelligent Utility magazine

Related Topics


Relative risk

Living in the modern world is dangerous. According to the World Health Organization, sun exposure leads to more than 65 thousand premature cancer deaths per year. Thirty-six thousand Americans died in motor vehicle accidents in 2009. There are a multitude of risks we all take every day, from eating sushi to crossing the street. Everything has its costs and benefits. The problem is that most people do an incredibly poor job of measuring risks and rewards.

I think I can say with reasonable confidence that exposure to electromagnetic radiation does not provide positive human health benefits. However, a periodic wireless transmission tens of feet away (on average) from places where I spent any appreciable amounts of time is a miniscule incremental risk relative to the death-defying feats I perform daily, such as driving to work. And just as I derive benefits from commuting (a paycheck mainly), I get something from having access to higher resolution energy information. For one, I have a better idea of what consumptive behaviors are costing me and whether the cost is commensurate with the benefit. That enables me to minimize my energy bill, freeing up dollars for other things--like a gym membership--that may benefit my health more than a small increase in electromagnetic radiation hurts it. The energy I save combined with increased efficiencies on the utility end reduce the environmental impacts of my living on the planet. That's good for me, my children, and my children's children. Smart meters are not going to save the planet alone, but they are a first baby step towards making people smarter about energy consumption. Imagine how much smarter we'd all be if every cigarette or Danish pastry were labeled with the number of minutes they shortened a person's life or added  to the cost of future medical care. That's not likely anytime soon, so for now I'll settle for those things that can be measured using available technology.

Greg Tinfow, CEO, Energy Informatics LLC


"if there are still people out there that believe this conspiracy theory, then you've got a lot more consumer education you need to be doing, post-haste."

But isn't that the point? There is NO level of "education" that will change these people's minds. If utilities or ratepayers are paying for "education," this is money going into a black hole.

Health Effects, Smart Meters

Hi Kate,

I think the health issue has more layers to it.  Many of us are fortunate to not have electro-hyper-sensitivity. However, that doesn't mean we still want to be exposed to ongoing pulsed radiation 24/7.  The radiation which smart meters emit has been found in studies to have genotoxic effects, such as double strand DNA damage.  So even if we feel great now, the concern is for long term effects, especially as Dr. Martin Blank of Columbia University says this radiation is "cumulative."   Also Michael Bevington has a report where he discusses how RF radiation can exacerbate existing medical conditions.   In addition there are people with medical implants, who actually could be killed from exposure to wireless.

I think the activists who are working to stop smart meters are very intelligent and I appreciate their work. 

Also, one does not have to have an extreme view to be concerned about privacy issues.

  Regarding the woman who considered the ruling a "crime against humanity," you forgot to mention that she was upset because her neighbor's newborn baby has leukemia.  They live, she had shared during public comments, in one of the first places in California to get smart meters, and her neighbor was exposed to smart meter radiation during her pregnancy.  It would be hard to identify what caused the baby's leukemia--but babies with cancer as well as all children are more vulnerable to RF radiation than adults. (Dr. Gandhi did research on this.)  FYI, I also wrote about this women and the CPUC ruling in my blog


Melissa Levine


Cold commentaries.......I was

Cold commentaries.......I was injured by Avista Utilities of Idaho in February of 2009. I reported my symptoms to people just like you, completely indifferent. How do you expect to become knowledgable about something that is being suppressed by the Industry, authorities, and media.

If you suffered and no one listened what would you do? Suggestions? Biological responses to electromagnetic radiation is documented worldwide.

Sooner or later you will become affected through a friend, sibling, parent, or love one. Keep crossing your fingers that we are all kooks, maybe that will work for you.

Now, that is magical thinking.

Sandi Aders



No surprise

I think some of the reactions to smart meters and EMF issues are part of the growing trend of science based on belief rather than fact. Of the GOP contenders running for president, only one, Huntsman, was an unqualified "believer" in evolution. Television is full of talking heads who believe that vaccines cause autism or that human activity has no effect on climate change. It's not about facts, it about who yells the loudest, gets the most TV facetime, or acquires the most "mind share."

Utilities have to accept some responsibility for some of the embarrassing ignorance exhibited by the public with regard to smart meters and various risks imposed by wireless communications. In the haste to grab ARRA money, they thought they could install the technology first and worry about selling the public later. It really wouldn't have been that hard to provide some simple tools that would have demonstrated the value of higher resolution energy consumption data. A customer who has just been shown how to shave ten or twenty percent of his or her electric bill is going to be a lot more enthusiatic than one who can't see any obvious benefits. 

p.s. I had a smart meter for two months. I did make me smarter. I installed 6.5 kW of solar to offset my high-price-tier usage. As soon as I did however, my utlity yanked out my smart meter (apparently the back-end system wasn't "smart" enough to accommodate bi-directional energy flow.) I do have my own shadow metering setup however, and I'm getting smarter about energy consumption (and production) every day...

Amen, again.

Well said, Kate.  This situation is a perfect example of why major technology, infrastructure and policy decisions simply cannot be made by the masses.  There are too many people who become overly vocal when manipulated by misinformation presented by a select few.  In reality, though maybe Marin County is the exception to reality in more ways than one, the vast majority of utility customers are either looking forward to the benefits of smart meters or trust that their utility isn't conspiring to harm them in some way with smart meters.  It is the vocal few who are creating such a stir and adding significant cost to utility operations through their delusional opposition.  And that cost detracts from the value of the smart grid.

Still Much Work To Be Done

The messages for the public have to be taken from the engineering perspective and simplified for communications to the average person.  A very good test of the message's effectiveness is to present it to the broader utility workforce to see if they get it.  If you can't reach them then you have to go back to the drawing board.  The utility workforce and their one-on-one public contacts is one of the best opportunities to address the public's concerns about the technology.  If they don't get it then the public will never get it. 


Richard G. Pate

Pate & Associates, Principal 


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Typically Californian

I'll bet most of the speakers at yesterday's CPUC meeting were from Marin, which attracts an interesting collection of personalities.  The area north of the Golden Gate is remote, beautiful, and full of unusual people.

If this was about interval meters that collect data on hourly or more granular time scales, allow remote connects and disconnects, and self-report localized outages, things might be less heated.  Where I think PG&E and perhaps other utilities are going to get themselves in trouble is by installing meters that are capable of collecting appliance-level data. That's not been widely publicized but in fact, I was appalled when I heard about it at a Smart Grid workshop some time back.  There is no public purpose served by including this kind of functionality, but PG&E apparently wanted gold-plated meters and the CPUC went along.

This all has the potential to get even uglier when appliance manufacturers start delivering devices that can respond to a grid condition signal.  If the utility (or the government) can shut off appliances - ignoring the salient fact that they are unlikely to actually do so without consent unless the grid is about to collapse - we'll see many more protesters crawling out of the woodwork.  Its why I keep insisting that consumers need to buy devices that can respond to price rather than a condition signal that can arguably be set and manipulated by someone.  If consumers can understand why the price of fruits and vegetables change with the seasons, they can understand why electicity is going to be more expensive at some times than at others.  

Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA