Thursday, April 28, 2011
Imagine if Apple upgraded the iPhone so that problems would be fixed without needing to report them. Imagine the upgrade let you easily manage your usage so your bill would go down. As a special bonus, it would help you reduce your carbon footprint. And what if Apple offered this upgrade for free? People would be lining up outside the Apple Store.
What if PG&E offered an upgrade to electric meters with the same benefits, and called them SmartMeters. Well, being PG&E, they just might botch it. Instead of lining up to embrace the new technology, people would be protesting it.
Which is, of course, what happened. But it didn’t have to.
SmartMeters allow your electric and gas meters to communicate with PG&E, help consumers monitor energy use and can interface with “smart appliances,” meaning an appliance can turn off and on depending on demand.
I’ve had dozens of citizens contact me to express their concerns, mostly about health risks from the SmartMeters’ wireless radios that allow the meters to communicate with PG&E, and the consumer. I understand that concern, but I don’t share it. Here’s why.
The electromagnetic radiation (EMR) from the wireless radios in SmartMeters is very small compared with other sources in our modern world – like cell phones. If there were a meaningful risk associated with SmartMeters, we should have seen evidence of much greater risks associated with many other larger sources of EMR – again, like cell phones.
I’m not concerned, but I respect the views of those who are. Science is inherently unable to prove something is completely safe. I also think that people should generally be able to choose the technologies installed in their homes.
This gets to the crux of what PG&E did wrong. The utility rolled out its SmartMeter program without giving people a choice. I may be willing to expose myself to a small amount of electromagnetic radiation, but I want to make that choice, not have PG&E or the government make that choice for me.
PG&E was slow to take critics seriously. In response, various cities and towns took action into their own hands and banned SmartMeters.
PG&E argued that only the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC), not even PG&E itself, had authority to develop an opt-out program for people who do not want SmartMeters. The CPUC needs to follow a deliberate process that will likely last many months before approving an opt-out program. Meanwhile, PG&E continued to install SmartMeters.
I AM NOT AGAINST SMARTMETERS BUT I’M FOR CONSTITUENTS HAVING A CHOICE.
I waded into this legal and bureaucratic morass, not because I am against Smart Meters but because I’m for my constituents having a choice. I had a simple request for PG&E. Could PG&E guarantee anyone in Carmel who doesn’t want to have a SmartMeter that they wouldn’t have one installed until the CPUC approves an opt-out program?
PG&E said they don’t “do” guarantees. I got a little mad. I thought it was a reasonable request that would satisfy most of PG&E’s critics and actually help the company with its PR nightmare. I told them as politely as I could that “no” was the wrong answer and to try again. To my surprise and their credit, they came back and said they could agree to my request for the Carmel area.
Officials in our neighboring towns heard of the deal we had struck in Carmel and wanted the same. This time, it was a little easier – I pointed out it would be more than a little unfair if they offered the deal only to relatively affluent Carmel and didn’t provide the same guarantee to other parts of the Monterey Peninsula. PG&E saw the logic and gave the guarantee to the whole Monterey Peninsula, from Marina to Carmel.
Okay, that’s progress. How about the whole county?
PG&E this week announced it would do one better. PG&E has agreed to take the arrangement we worked out first for Carmel and apply it across the entire state. To paraphrase Churchill, PG&E did the right thing, after having exhausted every other alternative.
If you are like me and are excited about the benefits of Smart Meters, do nothing. You’ll get yours soon. However, if you do not want a Smart Meter, simply call PG&E at 1-866-743-0263 and ask to be put on the “delayed install” list. Your installation will be delayed until the CPUC approves a formal opt-out program and PG&E gives you an opportunity to opt-out.
It is your choice and, if you are like me, you are pro-choice regardless of whether you are pro-SmartMeter.
Carmel City Council member Jason Burnett is the founder of Burnett EcoEnergy, a company that makes investments in clean energy. He was previously head of energy and climate policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.