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PG&E gets earful over SmartMeters at Santa Rosa hearing

Michael Kyes, the mayor of Sebastopol, speaks during the public comment session at a PUC meeting on Smart Meters at the Steele Lane Community Center in Santa Rosa on Dec. 20, 2012.

(John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Published: Friday, December 21, 2012 at 2:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 21, 2012 at 2:24 p.m.

Two hundred people turned out Thursday in Santa Rosa to rail against PG&E SmartMeters, complaining that individual opt-out fees are unfair, that cities should be able to get out of the program and that the wireless technology is a health threat.

"Do not impose a tariff to opt out, and allow communities to opt out," Fairfax Town Councilman Larry Bragman told an administrative law judge conducting a public hearing for the state Public Utilities Commission. "If you do that, you will drive more innovative solutions."

"It is unconscionable to extort money for safety, especially for people who cannot afford the cost of removal of this toxic device," said Ami Hartley.

Judge Amy Yip-Kikugawa will prepare a report for the PUC, addressing whether the fees PG&E charges customers who refuse to have a SmartMeter installed are justified.

A second issue is whether a community, be it a senior citizens complex or a city, should be able to opt out.

The hearing at the Steele Lane Community Center was the fifth and last to be held in the state. Other hearings were in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Bakersfield and Sacramento.

The judge's recommendations are expected to be presented to the PUC in the spring in advance of a summer vote on modifying the SmartMeter system, PUC officials said.

PG&E began installing SmartMeters in February 2010, promoting the wireless meters as a way for consumers to better analyze energy use and make smarter choices about, and possibly cut, energy consumption.

It also is a cost-cutting measure for the utility, which can reduce staffing and save money by employing fewer meter readers.

The meters and the wireless technology, much the same as cellphones, immediately drew complaints that the radio emissions are a health risk and the meters are inaccurate.

"Two meters were put in, and I started getting shooting pains and headaches," Rebecca Heisler told the judge. "Within six weeks, I had to leave my house."

The World Health Organization is among the major medical organizations that have not found a provable link between SmartMeter technology and poor health.

SmartMeter critics say the American Academy of Environmental Medicine is among the groups that have urged a moratorium on SmartMeters pending further study into potential health issues related to radio-wave transmissions.,

In Sonoma County, the meters have faced a storm of protest, particularly in Sebastopol, home of the EMF (electromagnetic frequency) Safety Network.

The Sebastopol City Council has called for PG&E to allow entire municipalities, such as Sebastopol, to opt out of the SmartMeter program. That is one option under consideration by the PUC.

"Our City Council believes people should have a choice and they should without cost," Councilwoman Sarah Gurney said at the hearing. "Plus, give our community an opportunity to opt out."

Under the opt-out program approved by the PUC in February, customers are allowed to keep their traditional meters for a one-time fee of $75 and a $10 monthly fee to cover the cost of having the meters read. Low-income customers who qualify for PG&E's CARE program pay a $10 setup fee and monthly charges of $5.

PG&E spokeswoman Brittany McKannay said there are 71,000 meters in Sonoma County, and 85 percent of them are the new SmartMeters. About 3,200 residential customers have opted out.

Sebastopol is the final area in Sonoma County to be getting the new meters, with 2,400 of the 12,260 meters having been upgraded, McKannay said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com.

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