PG&E is preparing to resume SmartMeter installations around Sonoma County later this month and is urging those who want to opt out to make their wishes known -- though the choice comes at a price.

About 71,700 Pacific Gas & Electric customers, or about 15 percent, remain on the "to do" list -- their old-fashioned analog meters still untouched when the company suspended SmartMeter installations last year, spokeswoman Brittany McKannay said.

Those waiting to receive the meters will be notified in advance so "there are no surprises when we come to make those installations," McKannay said.

But the process will take months before it's completed in 2013, so it could be weeks or months before individual customers receive those letters, she said.

PG&E has touted the digital meters as a way for consumers to analyze their energy use and make smarter choices about when, for example, they use large appliances and how they can otherwise reduce their energy use.

It also means the utility company can cut staffing, saving money by employing fewer meter readers.

The wireless meters, which transmit digital data on electrical and natural gas use to PG&E, were introduced in February 2010 and quickly met with resistance in Sonoma County and around California.

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine is among those who have urged a moratorium on SmartMeters, pending further study into potential health issues related to radio wave transmissions. Numerous municipalities and counties have urged continued scrutiny, as well.

Critics say the radio frequencies from SmartMeters, in addition to cellphones and other electronic devices, can cause cumulative health problems, ranging from insomnia, headaches, tinnitus and chronic fatigue to heart disease and cancer.

They also argue that exposure is being measured against outdated standards developed before the proliferation of wireless devices.

Major health agencies like the World Health Organization have not found a direct, provable link between SmartMeter technology and poor health, though many of those urging caution say further study should be conducted until it's known for sure SmartMeters are safe.

Concern about the meters has expanded to questions of billing accuracy, and claims the devices could be part of a larger system that would enable tracking of consumer behavior and, even, surveillance.

The California Public Utilities Commission ultimately required PG&E to develop a plan to permit customers to refuse SmartMeters, though it also authorized PG&E to charge a fee for the privilege.

Installations were put on hold until the matter could be resolved.

Under a scheme developed last winter, folks who don't want SmartMeters at their homes or businesses can keep their conventional meters, though PG&E will charge them a one-time fee of $75, plus $10 a month to cover the cost of sending someone to read the meter every month.

Low-income customers who qualify for PG&E's CARE program would pay a $10 setup fee and monthly charges of $5.

McKannay said crews from Wellington Energy, which has been contracted to install the meters, will resume their work for PG&E on July 30.

More information about opting out is available at www.pge.com/myhome/customerservice/smartmeter/optout/.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.