PG&E fields comments on, criticism of new meters

Some San Luis Obispo County residents Tuesday echoed critics nationwide when questioning the electromagnetic health impacts and billing accuracy of the digital SmartMeters that PG&E is installing at all homes in Northern and Central California this year.

Because of ongoing concerns voiced to area mayors, the California League of Cities organized a meeting Tuesday with PG&E officials so they could assuage worries over the safety of the devices.

SmartMeters are part of a nationwide effort to upgrade the energy grid, which supplies electricity to people’s homes. Customers can’t opt out of the installation, officials said, as the meters were approved by the Public Utilities Commission. Residents argue they should have a choice.

The digital meters track electricity use and wirelessly transmit data to PG&E through two built-in radios. One radio is always on. PG&E officials said the radios’ maximum transmission of electromagnetic radiation equals a “small exposure” — one the Federal Communications Commission deems safe.

Opponents of the meters said that while the immediate effects of the electromagnetic activity show no apparent harm, science is still questioning the long-term effects, as with cell phones.

The League hosted the workshop, held at the South County Regional Center in Arroyo Grande, because locals continue to ask about SmartMeters. About 40 people attended the late afternoon talk; seven of them voiced opposition. The county Board of Supervisors has not yet considered a proposal halting the installation of the meters as 23 counties have statewide.

Judy Vick of Atascadero, a former county supervisory candidate who questions wireless meter safety, presented arguments after PG&E officials gave a slideshow touting SmartMeter benefits.

Attendees also voiced concerns that some customer bills doubled and tripled after SmartMeters were installed. PG&E officials said those cases were likely related to reflection of two billing months over one due to installation timing.

A study ordered by the PUC concluded that the devices were functioning properly. SmartMeters were first installed in the North County in fall 2010, officials said. Meters will come to the South County next, with installation slated to begin in April or May. San Luis Obispo residents should get them by the end of the year. All remaining residents will get new meters by 2012. A total of about 113,000 meters will be installed in the county.