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A much-anticipated study of the accuracy of SmartMeters could determine whether the controversial devices continue to be installed on the North Coast, where the majority of old meters have yet to be converted.

The $1.4 million study was commissioned by the California Public Utilities Commission in May to address concerns that the high-tech gas and electric meters can lead to billing overcharges for some PG&E customers.

The study's release later this month or in early September will be closely analyzed on the North Coast, where concerns about SmartMeters have sparked heated community debate and calls for a delay in rolling out the devices.

While the PUC study does not address any perceived health risks related to electromagnetic frequencies emitted by the meters — the main concern expressed on the North Coast — a moratorium based on accuracy issues would nevertheless achieve what these critics are seeking.

Consumer advocates say the PUC will be under significant pressure to enact such a moratorium if problems with the meters are uncovered.

"If in fact the investigation shows that consumer complaints are valid, the obvious next step is to stop installing the meters," said Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network. "Why would you continue to install something in every person's house if it's not working properly?"

The PUC study, conducted by The Structure Group based in Houston, involves testing the new meters in the lab and in the field to determine whether the devices are working within accepted margins of error.

PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno said the company is confident the study will show that the meters work as intended. He said the company has experienced "relatively few" problems with the meters to date, and that customers who were overcharged for their gas or electricity use have been compensated.

"Overall, the SmartMeter program is working really well," he said.

In Sonoma County, about 140,000 gas and electric meters have been upgraded out of 400,000 that are eligible for conversion, according to PG&E data. The numbers for specific cities include:

Santa Rosa — 72,000 out of 165,000 meters

Petaluma — 25,000 out of 56,000 meters

Rohnert Park — 6,100 out of 31,000 meters

Moreno said PG&E has yet to install meters in the west county except in cases where a damaged meter needed to be replaced, or for new or renovated homes and businesses.

Fewer than 1,000 of the devices have been installed in the Sebastopol area, out of a total of 22,000 gas and electric meters that are set for the conversion.

Moreno said PG&E has not held off in the west county because of any resistance to the new meters there.

"That's more of a rural area," Moreno said. "Deployment there (in Sonoma County) has focused more on urban areas."

PG&E beefed up its call center staff and has been holding forums in several North Coast cities in response to criticism about the SmartMeter program. The company also is releasing weekly program updates online under orders from the PUC.

Last week, Petaluma resident Alyse Breece attended a PG&E forum at the Petaluma Community Center to ask company officials if the radio frequencies emitted by SmartMeters are dangerous.

The art teacher and mother of two said she noticed a "buzzing" sound in her house after a SmartMeter was installed a month ago.

"Instead of freaking out, I thought I'd come down here and see what they had to say," Breece said.

Austin Sharp, a PG&E customer outreach specialist, assured Breece that the meters are safe. He told her the radio frequencies emitted by the meters are lower than for other common household devices, such as cell phones and microwave ovens.

"Our meters don't broadcast hardly at all. They're basically doing nothing 90 percent of the time," Sharp said.

Members of the Electromagnetic Field Safety Network attended the forum to voice their continued concerns about SmartMeters posing a danger to public health.

The network, which has about a dozen members and is based in Sebastopol, claims that radio frequencies used to transmit data from SmartMeters, as well as electronic emissions from laptops, cell phones, TVs and other devices, can cause "electrical sensitivity" and health problems ranging from chronic fatigue, headaches and insomnia, to heart ailments and cancer.

The World Health Organization, American Cancer Society and other major health organizations have found no definitive links between radio frequencies and ill health.

Because the PUC study does not address health concerns related to SmartMeters, it's likely that the upcoming report will do little to quell the the debate.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, has called on the California Council on Science and Technology to investigate whether Federal Communication Commission standards for SmartMeters sufficiently protect public health.

Huffman said the FCC standards cited by supporters of SmartMeters are outdated and do not take into account the "cumulative affect" of the ever-expanding range of devices that emit radio frequencies.

At the same time, he said critics of the devices can't point to credible science to support their arguments.

"I see an opportunity to add to the discussion," said Huffman, whose district includes southern Sonoma County.

Huffman, who plans to meet Monday with members of the state advisory group, said he wanted to emphasize that he does not believe that electromagnetic frequencies pose health risks.

"In fact, it's probably unlikely," he said.

He also is not joining calls for a statewide moratorium on SmartMeters, saying that's an issue for local jurisdictions.

West County supervisor Efren Carrillo and Sebastopol city leaders have called on the PUC to issue such a delay.

On Aug. 4, the Fairfax Town Council in Marin County voted to delay installation of the meters there for six months. Other towns and cities, including San Francisco and Santa Cruz, have asked for similar delays.

<i>You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com.</i>

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