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.
“Our level of ambient exposure to radio-frequency radiation is increasing,” Foster says, often beyond federal limits.
The Federal Communications Commission guidelines are based on standards developed by nongovernment organizations, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, as well as input from other federal agencies, according to commission’s website.
Those guidelines specify exposure limits for handheld wireless devices in terms of the rate that radio-frequency energy is absorbed by the body. That is, the ability of radio frequency to heat tissue. But they don’t cover all potential health effects, which Foster says is also the case with cell phones.
“What we’re concerned about at the smart-meter level is the effect of the wave short of cooking us.”
A study released in February by researchers from the National Institutes of Health is among the first and largest to document such effects, showing that the weak radiation emitted by cell phones can alter brain activity. The researchers found that less than an hour of cell-phone use can speed up brain activity in the area closest to the antenna.
While the study doesn’t prove that the increase causes health effects, critics of wireless meters are citing it to support their claims that federal guidelines are insufficient.
The commission’s “Consumer Facts” webpage, “Wireless Devices and Health Concerns,” confirms that while many federal agencies have addressed the issue, “… there is no federally developed national standard for safe levels of exposure to radiofrequency energy….”
San Diego Gas and Electric claims that smart meters transmit data less than one minute per day and emit no more radio frequency than other common household items like portable phones.
Opponents say that until science can prove them safe under actual living conditions, people should have a choice, as they do with other household appliances that emit radio frequency.
The arguments haven’t gone unheard.
Months ahead of the California Public Utilities Commission asking Pacific Gas and Electric to draft an opt-out proposal, California assemblyman Jared Huffman introduced a bill that would require the state commission to determine smart-meter alternatives by January 2012.
Assembly Bill 37 also requires utilities to disclose information about smart meters, including the magnitude, frequency, and duration of radio-frequency emissions.
Unlike the current proposal, which would extend the option to Pacific Gas and Electric customers only, the bill applies to every major California investor-owned utility that is regulated by the state commission, according to Lawrence Cooper, Huffman’s legislative aide in Sacramento. The “big three” include Southern California Edison Company, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and San Diego Gas and Electric Company.
The bill is now working its way through committees. In the meantime, it’s all about the details, like who will pay for a wired option that Huffman’s bill requires to provide the same smart-grid benefits? Or to deactivate a device already installed?
Or what happens when customers still feel as though they have no choice because their neighbors, maybe on the other side of the wall, choose to have a smart meter?