PG&E wants to give customers concerned about radio wave emissions from its new SmartMeters the choice of retaining conventional meters — for a fee.
The utility's action comes in response to ongoing objections to SmartMeters, the devices that monitor customers' electricity and natural gas consumption and transmit the data to PG&E.
Nearly 9 million SmartMeters already have been installed throughout the utility's Northern and Central California territory, and the optional program would apply to the remaining 1 million meters that are to be replaced in 2012.
In Sebastopol, a hotbed of opposition to the new meters, PG&E has installed 25 percent of its planned SmartMeters, compared with 80 percent installation in Sonoma County overall.
"We know our customers there (in Sebastopol) are sensitive to SmartMeters," PG&E representative Brandi Ehlers said.
On Monday, PG&E officially asked the California Public Utilities Commission to approve the option of retaining conventional meters, known as analog meters.
A decision by the state commission could come as early as its next meeting on Jan. 12, a commission spokeswoman said.
"This is an important concession from PG&E," said Sandi Maurer of Sebastopol, founder of the EMF Safety Network, which questions the safety, accuracy and security of SmartMeters.
But PG&E customers should have had the option all along to refuse SmartMeters, Maurer said, contending that the devices were "forced upon the public."
Maurer also said the proposed fee for retaining analog meters amounts to "a form of punishment."
The state commission in November issued a proposed decision accepting PG&E's plan to give customers the option of "radio off" SmartMeters, which would not emit signals.
That decision, which still needs formal approval, would allow a one-time fee of $90 and a $15-a-month ongoing charge for the option. PG&E had proposed either a $270 upfront fee and $14 a month, or $135 upfront and $20 a month.
Ehlers said the fee for both options — radio off and retaining analog meters — would be the same, with the amount to be determined by the utilities commission.
Critics maintain that the radio wave emissions from SmartMeters are a health hazard, an issue that remains unsettled.
In its November decision, the utilities commission said that health considerations are "outside the scope of this proceeding."
The decision said that customers should "be allowed to opt out of a wireless SmartMeter for any reason, or for no reason."
SmartMeters allow customers to track their electricity and natural gas usage by the day, week or month, using the information to "make smarter energy choices," PG&E says.
Customers can also sign up for "energy alerts," letting them know via telephone, text message or email when they are about to move into higher-priced tiers of electric use.