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Residents outline concerns about new PG&E meters

Submitted by on 1, July 2, 2010 – 5:00 am3 Comments

Photo from pge.com

By Janelle Bitker

Representatives with Pacific Gas & Electric met with about 50 local residents Wednesday night at Mastick Senior Center to hear their concerns about the new SmartMeters the company is in the midst of installing on the Island.

Residents expressed concerns about the meters, which transmit usage data to the utility wirelessly in place of a meter reader, that included higher PG&E bills, inaccurate usage readings, security and radiation.

The meters will monitor gas usage only, since electricity is supplied by Alameda Municipal Power.

Some residents said they’re upset about added radiation into homes. “Why would you expose people to radio frequency radiation when it is known to be dangerous?” one resident asked.

Others said they’re concerned over the possibility of hackers obtaining information through the wireless network used by SmartMeters.

“It sounds like terrorists could hack into the entire system!” another resident who attended the drop-in meeting said.

But PG&E’s reps said the meters are safe, and that the problems are few and fixable. They said the utility and a third party have studied the SmartMeters extensively and that 98.2 percent of the tests have shown accurate readings.

“We believe all the bugs are worked out,” PG&E  spokesman Tom Guarino said. “All of the indications to date have been of extreme accuracy.”

The SmartMeter program aims to update the power grid to be more reliable, efficient and environmentally sustainable, said PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno. And homeowners can track their energy use online and see how much gas they are using.

“You’ll have more of an ability to control your usage and be a little more energy efficient,” PG&E spokeswoman Roxanne Cruz said.

Routine rate increases are the cause of higher PG&E bills, said Richard Pon of PG&E’s Energy Solutions and Service. Residents who have not had a SmartMeter installed yet will not experience an additional rate increase. And 90 percent of the reported bill errors have been attributed to problems with the original meters, not the new SmartMeters, Guarino said.

Pon said that the radiation that is emitted by the meter is close to the same amount as cellular phones. But the SmartMeter is not in as close contact to skin as a cellular phone typically is. The gas meters give off a signal once a day for a fraction of a second, Moreno said.

And Moreno said the company takes security seriously.

“We have a number of measures in place. Employees monitor situations in real-time and there are already a number of requirements in place by the California Public Utilities Commission to protect information,” he said.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, almost 45,000 of the approximately 5.7 million PG&E has installed in California have experienced some errors. Nine of these SmartMeters were measuring electrical energy use inaccurately for unknown reasons. Other issues included poor installation, communication failures and data storage troubles — all problems that are fixable, Pon said.

Still, the concerns were enough to prompt a state Senate hearing about the meters in April, and to persuade San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Hererra to ask that the utility halt installing the meters in that city until an investigation of their accuracy is complete.

A resident passed out fliers in the middle of the meeting stating that individuals should have the right to a moratorium and opt out of the SmartMeters program. A petition is online, and over 300 people have signed it so far.

The flier also urged those who agree with petitioners to tape a sign on their existing meters saying, “Do not install SmartMeter.”

If you experience problems with SmartMeters, call PG&E at (800) 743-5000 or the California Public Utilities Commission’s consumer affairs branch, at (800) 649-7570.

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