PG&E to install SmartMeters in Sebastopol again
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is ending a four-year moratorium on the installation of residential SmartMeters in Sebastopol, where strong community opposition resulted in a 2013 ordinance banning new placements of the wireless devices, though the law was suspended before it was ever enforced.
The utility company will start next month on what could be 5,300 installations in the city by introducing a handful of the controversial meters in homes where customers specifically have requested them, spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said. Installations also will resume in the Marin County town of Fairfax, which opposed the meters, as well.
Contreras said the company will roll out its program carefully and deliberately, ensuring residents understand not only how SmartMeters work but that they also have a right to opt out — for a price.
No SmartMeters will be installed where customers have not been notified in advance, she said. Those choosing to stick with conventional meters must pay a $75 fee, plus $10 a month for three years.
But the plan already has aroused the ire of a Sebastopol-based group that has spent years fighting a regionwide plan to replace analog gas and electricity meters with digital ones critics claim pose a threat to human health, safety and privacy.
The group, EMF Safety Network is planning its next steps, Sebastopol resident and Network director Sandi Maurer said, including door-to-door distribution of literature about the perceived dangers of SmartMeters.
The devices emit electromagnetic radio waves similar to a cellphone or Wi-Fi router to communicate with centralized computers that keep real-time tabs on customers’ power use. Some consumers and health practitioners claim these repeated pulses cause symptoms including headaches, insomnia, imbalance, tinnitus and heart problems, though major health institutions have not validated these complaints.
But health concerns were among the problems cited in the urgency ordinance adopted in February 2013 by the Sebastopol City Council forbidding installation of new SmartMeters.
“We’re actively resisting PG&E’s deployment here in Sebastopol,” Maurer said, “and we will be going back to the city council to ask them to enforce the ban again, too.”
PG&E, like energy companies around the world, has been working for the past decade to upgrade old-fashioned meters with SmartMeters. The latter allow for two-way communication enabling faster detection of power outages, remote servicing and real-time access to power consumption that can guide customers’ conservation efforts. Nearly 10 million have been installed in PG&E’s service area, which runs from Bakersfield to Eureka, with an opt-out rate of about 2 percent, company representatives said.
Sonoma County’s opt-out rate is also 2 percent but that jumps to about 6 percent in Sebastopol, PG&E spokeswoman Ari Vanrenen said.
The company has installed about 2,600 SmartMeters in the city. The conversion of the 5,300 analog meters over the next two years represents about 3,000 customers, Vanrenen said.
Longtime council member Sara Glade Gurney said the company risks a public relations problem, if it moves forward.
“We’re expecting citizen action if they come here to install meters,” she said.
But the council’s previous move to ban deployment in 2013 was suspended almost immediately after it began because authority to regulate utility companies resides with the California Public Utility Commission, City Attorney/City Manager Larry McLaughlin said.
The state commission’s general counsel told the city the ban was an “illegal unenforceable ordinance, in violation of federal law,” McLaughlin said.
At the same time, PG&E said it would not honor the ordinance and threatened to sue if any of its employees was cited and charged the $500 fine the law allowed, McLaughlin said.
Current Mayor Una Glass said Wednesday she doesn’t “see that the council has a lot of options, no matter how much I think it’s kind of an imposition on our residents.
“We’re this tiny little city, and it’s kind of this David and Goliath thing again,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.