When a San Diego Gas and Electric technician asked Susan Foster how the company could allay her concerns about smart meters, her reply left him speechless.
“Can you get me a new heart?” Foster stood at her front door in her bathrobe one morning last spring, wondering why the utility company had sent an employee out after it had agreed not to install a smart meter on her Rancho Santa Fe home.
Foster has a cardiac condition and fears that electromagnetic waves emitted by the devices, which use radio signals to transmit information about customer energy use to utilities — and which do away with the need to send meter readers — “could severely compound” her health problems.
According to San Diego Gas and Electric’s website, the wireless electric and gas meters operate at frequencies similar to baby monitors and portable phones and fully comply with federal guidelines for human exposure to radio frequency.
But Foster isn’t reassured. And she’s not the only one worrying about the invisible waves. A growing number of utility customers cite health issues for opposing smart meters. What sets her apart: she lives in San Diego.
The greatest opposition to wireless meters has occurred in Northern and Central California, where Pacific Gas and Electric customers may soon be offered a choice about having a smart meter.
In March, the Monterey town of Seaside and Lake County in Northern California banned smart meters. Statewide, 38 governments oppose them in one form or another, according to a report from stopsmartmeters.org.
On March 10, the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates utility companies, requested that Pacific Gas and Electric present a proposal that would allow customers to opt out of a wireless smart meter.
The utility’s proposal, delivered on March 24, calls for added costs for customers who want to turn off radios within the devices. If the commission approves the plan, the company said it will soon make the option available.
San Diegans won‘t be given the option because officials say consumers here haven’t objected as strongly.
But that might be because Pacific Gas and Electric, which was first to begin deployment in 2006, also has far more customers. It will have the most meters — 9.8 million, according to a press release. In contrast, San Diego Gas and Electric began deployment in 2008, with a projected total of 1.4 million electric meters and 900,000 gas meters, according to the company’s website.
By July 31, state regulators had received 4169 complaints about smart meters from Pacific Gas and Electric customers, while the San Diego utility’s customers filed just 78 complaints.
However, many more complaints were lodged with San Diego Gas and Electric, according to company documents. As of January 12, 2011, the utility had received over 2600 complaints about the installation of smart meters, along with 240 customer refusals and 13 requests to have one removed. Foster is one of 32 customers who refused a meter for medical reasons.
Although she prevailed in keeping her old analog meter, Foster says it entailed a struggle with the company.
By the end of 2011, San Diego Gas and Electric plans to have transitioned all customers, both homes and businesses, to the wireless meters as part of what it calls on its website “a mandatory service upgrade.”
According to a utility customer service representative, “Angela,” who says she can provide only her first name, per company rules, “You can do nothing to opt out. It’s mandatory. The majority of them have been set.”
Foster considers the involuntary nature of the program one of the biggest flaws in the nationwide rollout of an energy-monitoring “smart grid,” of which the meters are a key element.
“If I had a smart meter on my home, I would not be able to control my exposure,” she says. “I would relinquish the freedom to at least attempt to control my own health.”
On March 21, three days before Pacific Gas and Electric issued its opt-out proposal, the San Diego–based Utility Consumers’ Action Network petitioned the state commission “asking that [San Diego Gas and Electric] not be permitted to impose smart meters upon customers who don’t want to use them,” its website states. Such customers should be given “the ability to opt out.”
The consumers’ network, however, has long promoted the rollout of smart meters as part of an energy action plan. According to its website, the group “has been actively engaged in Smart Grid issues since 2004.”
A 2006 University of San Diego study, funded by the San Diego utility and consumer group, found that the technology overhaul would yield up to $3 billion in benefits “divided almost equally between the community and the utility.”
Supporters argue that the technology will enable better monitoring of consumption, allowing users to take advantage of off-peak rates and run appliances when electricity is cheapest. It can also reduce the need to build new power plants.
To offer the same benefits to the grid using wired technology would cost considerably more, utility companies say, but Foster — a medical social worker — thinks it would save money in the long run on health-care costs.
Foster is now collaborating on a book about cancer victims who attribute their illness to cell-phone use. Her coauthor, Ellie Marks, prompted San Francisco last summer to become the first city in the United States to require that cell-phone retailers post their phones’ radiation levels prominently in stores. Marks became an activist after her husband was sickened by a brain tumor that developed after 20 years of cell-phone use.
According to the National Cancer Institute, studies have not shown a consistent link between cell-phone use and cancer. But a new study by the National Institutes of Health has reignited one main argument cited by smart-meter foes — that there’s more than one way the devices may cause harm.
The federal standards that utility companies rely on for smart-meter safety assurances overlook the fact that people are exposed to more radio-frequency sources than ever, like Wi-Fi networks and cellular antennas.