Cleantech Market Intelligence
PG&E’s Smart Meter Program Takes More Hits
My blog published on November 11th (“PG&E Blows it Again”) highlighted the embarrassing resignation of Pacific Gas & Electric’s manager of its SmartMeter program after it was revealed that he was eavesdropping on the online networking of grassroots activists that have been blockading the installation of smart grid infrastructure in northern California. Turns out, this was just a harbinger of things to come.
PG&E is now facing further challenges on the smart grid front, this time from state regulators. In response, the beleaguered utility now appears to be backing off on requiring mandatory installation of its smart meter technology, though the details surrounding any alternatives may not be clear until early next year.
On November 18th, the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) Division of Ratepayer Advocates (DRA) called for an investigation into alleged public health hazards with PG&E’s smart meters. “Unless the public’s concerns can be put to rest, there is a very great risk that PG&E’s SmartMeter deployment will turn out to be a $2.2 billion mistake that ratepayers can ill afford,” reads the announcement. Ironically enough, this was the same day that a high profile event in San Francisco – home to PG&E’s corporate headquarters – brought together leading scientists from around the world to highlight the latest research on the public health impacts of various wireless technologies — including smart meters.
It turns out that there is very little data available about smart meters, according to Elizabeth Kelley, founder of the Electromagnetic Safety Alliance, Inc., who made a presentation on smart meter technology at the prestigious Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. The lack of data, however, has convinced Kelley more research is required before more smart meters are installed throughout the country. She alleged she is in contact with growing numbers of consumers reporting maladies that have transpired since smart meters were installed in their homes. “So far, studies have looked at the growing array of wireless signals permeating our homes and businesses in isolation. Yet today, there are growing numbers of electromagnetic technologies operating simultaneously, a situation she described as a “toxic soup.” She added, “We need to know the accumulative impacts, and differences between acute and chronic exposures.” At present, only cell phones among wireless technologies are subject to some form of government health standards – and she pointed out these standards are also now under attack.
Interestingly enough, a day later after the CPUC’s DRA announced its investigation, PG&E offered the possibility of offering customers alternatives to the smart meters, a sign that the utility is now recognizing the toll of the campaign organized by the anti-smart meter crowd.
For those betting on the business opportunities linked to the smart grid, is this good or bad news?
The answer depends upon whether firms are entirely locked into the idea that the smart grid has to be deployed using wireless signals. It may indeed by the case that there is no “one size fits all.” The actions by the CPUC, which has been a trend setter for more than three decades, could encourage a domino effect throughout the U.S. The European model of securing intelligence for the grid through fiber optics, existing phone lines or power line communications may cost more, but may help stem the negative press that has surrounded smart grid deployments throughout 2010 here in the U.S. (Interestingly enough, PG&E was authorized by the CPUC to rely upon power line communications, but then independently switched gears and opted for wireless transmission via Silver Springs Network.)
More than 22 cities and three counties in California have already launched formal objections to the mandatory deployment of smart meters. The leading purveyors of smart grid products would be wise to think through a greater diversity of options for deploying the smart grid, while simultaneously building the scientific record on accumulative impacts of electromagnetic radio frequencies. Millions of dollars are potentially at stake. Of course, a more complicated matter will be who will pay for these alternatives if only a small minority of customers “opt out” of standard smart meter offerings.