PG&E has been installing what they call "Smartmeters", which broadcast readings of a residence's power usage to PG&E, so that they won't need meter-readers any more. This will give them hourly information on private electric power usage. PG&E has not said why they need this kind of information, except to suggest it is for its customers own good (self-monitoring). But these new meters are a total scandal.
The scandal first emerged in the form of billing increases. Some people's bills came back double, triple, even quadruple their normal charges after the meters were installed. This has been so upsetting that, to date, four cities have instituted or are formulating moratoriums on the installation of these meters until their many problems can be resolved. What are these problems?
These meters have never been tested for accuracy.
They have not been tested for accuracy by either PG&E and the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC). Both simply took the manufacturer's word for it. Because of the uproar, the PUC has actually contracted with the "Structure Group" (a utility consultant in Houston, Texas) to test the meters. Though this should have halted their installation, it didn't. It is the variability in the inaccuracies that points to the problem. If the inaccuracy had been uniform, it could have been corrected centrally by PG&E. But some report usage that is double or triple a house's average, resulting in grossly elevated billing charges, while others report usage that accords with former averages. It signifies that the problem is in the manufacture of the meters.
Funding for these meters is coming from federal economic recovery moneys.
One of the benefits that PG&E will receive from these meters is that they can then dispense with all their meter-readers. They are receiving subsidies from the federal government for this meter replacement program as part of its economic recovery program. But recovery means giving people jobs so that they can earn an income, not laying more people off. PG&E is receiving recovery funds and using them against recovery.
There is a health issue from the meter's broadcast radiation. .
These meters broadcast on the microwave band, which is the same band your kitchen microwave ovens use. Along with cell phones and other devices, there is growing evidence that the increasing mass of electromagnetic radiation contributes to serious health problems for people. Some people pooh-pooh this idea, and assure us that PG&E's broadcast radiation is well below FCC standards. It is the FCC standard that is scandalous. The FCC standard for microwave radiation safety is set at the level above which the radiation (close to its source) starts to heat up human tissue. That is, the only health risk the FCC recognizes is the cooking of flesh. All the possible health risks from lower level radiation are discounted (though they are clearly recognized by most European countries, who set the safe maximum for radiation energy much lower).
The other scandal is that the installation of every new radiating device is done without concern for the cumulative effect of adding another source to a physical environment filled with sources of electromagnetic radiation. These new meters do not stand alone; they add themselves to an already massive public exposure: radio, TV, high-tension power lines, wifi, cell phones, microwave ovens, other appliances, each adding its small amount to the others. And these meters will add a network of radiation sources from all the houses of a neighborhood.
Despite all the disclaimers about the safety of these meters, two women in SF have had those meters removed because of illness directly attributable to their broadcast radiation. The symptoms one of these women experienced was headache, depression, dehydration, anxiety, and tingling in the extremities.
PG&E does not give its customers an option. .
PG&E has said that eventually, those who do not accept these new meters will have their power shut off. It won't matter that they have paid their bills. A number of people have made public offers to PG&E to read the meter and phone in the reading to PG&E. That way, they will not need a meter-reader (though they should retain those readers as part of the crisis recovery process). If PG&E wants us to trust them to be above board, honest, without corporate malfeasance or price-gouging, then they should reciprocate and trust us, their clientelle. (A friend of mine suggests that, because these meters will use electrical energy for their broadcasts, which they will take from the individual's account, PG&E should give all its customers a discount for its use of the customer's power.) But ultimately, we should all have an option (a "vote") to opt out of the new meter's installation (PG&E trumpets the idea of a vote in its Prop 16 propaganda).
These meters are hackable, creating a vulnerability for the household. .
What it means that they are hackable is that someone with a computer and wifi can not only read these meters from the street nearby, but change their readings (as reported in the SF Chronicle, 3/27/2010). By reading a house's hourly usage, a person can discover when people are home and when they are likely not home. This is a vulnerability, leaving the house or apartment possibly available for pillage. PG&E has done nothing to render these meters unhackable, since they want to be able to control the meters themselves, possibly to shut off power for a customer, if for no other reason.
There are a number of petitions going around in Berkeley requesting that city and county government impose a moratorium on the installation of these meters pending resolution of these issues, that is, of the meter's inaccuracy, its cumulative health risks, its vulnerability to hacking, its contribution to the ongoing economic crisis, and the question of its necessity for the customers of PG&E.
Ultimately, the real scandal is not just PG&E, but the fact that a public service, such as a utility, is given to be performed by a corporation, where corporations are constituted precisely to eliminate any liability for their personel. They are thus structures devoid of social responsibility in all but their self-serving hype. The fact that PG&E intends on spending around $35 million to pass Proposition 16, which will effectively prevent public power in California, is an example. Their propaganda about that proposition is untrue. They claim that we do not have a vote on whether we want public power or not. But we do have to vote on it if we want it. Prop 16 would establish the necessity of a two-thirds vote instead of the simple majority it is now. It would make it effectively impossible, given that corporations can spend unlimited moneys in a campaign, to vote in public power.