facebook tracking pixel Smart meters, good or bad? (VIDEO) | TheUnion.com

Smart meters, good or bad? (VIDEO)

Ivan Natividad
Staff Writer
Lane with her Acoustimeter, Model AM-10 which is measuring the RF of an iPhone.
John Hart/jhart@theunion.com | The Union

While living in a Nevada City apartment complex, Berry Bartolillo said, she began to experience issues with nausea, irritability and insomnia.

“I had symptoms, but at the time I didn’t correlate them with the smart meter,” Bartolillo said. “As soon as they put the two gas smart meters on, I was immediately sick and I knew that that’s what it was… I don’t wish that feeling on my worst enemies. It’s really, really terrible.”

Bartolillo moved into her boyfriend’s basement to get “off the grid,” and is now leading the local charge to get smart meters banned in municipalities within Nevada County through her organization Nevada County Stop Smart Meters!, a branch of the flagship group that grew out of a grassroots effort in Scotts Valley in June 2010.

Stop Smart Meters! is an advocacy non-profit providing consultation and advice to dozens of groups around the world.

“This is not about covering costs or saving money or being green,” Director of Stop Smart Meters! Joshua Hart said. “This is about suppressing people’s free choice and enforcing the smart grid. What we’re demanding is immediate cease and desist on smart meters… It’s a big scam in California.”

Smart meters are digital meters that have replaced the old analog meters around the nation, to record statistics on a home or business’ energy use. They transmit energy consumption information to utility providers, such as Pacific Gas and Electric, on a more frequent schedule than analog meters, which require a meter reader to transmit information.

Smart meters record energy use at your home throughout the day, which, proponents say, enables consumers to monitor their consumption and make more informed energy choices.

The meter can also notify utility providers of a power outage, or allow the utility to remotely switch electricity service on or off, and uses a wireless two-way communication network that transmits radio frequencies, also known as RF.

“It was a decision from the California Public Utilities Commission to upgrade our system,” PG&E spokeswoman Brandi Ehlers said. “It was at the direction of the CPUC that we install these smart meters.”

Health impacts

The potential health effects related to RF emissions has been disputed by both providers and critics of smart meters. Opponents of the meters claim they cause a slew of symptoms including headaches, insomnia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, and tumors.

The World Health Organization’s May 2011 International Agency for Research on Cancer report classified RF electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic to humans based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer” associated with wireless communications, such as cell phones.

The WHO has stated it would conduct a formal assessment on the risks of smart meter RF exposure, but the report is not yet available.

“It’s not just smart meters, it’s cell phones, cell towers and all forms of wi-fi connection,” said Nevada County Stop Smart Meters! member Heather Lane. “The medical industry not only doesn’t recognize the condition and symptoms that people sensitive to RF experience, they treat you like it’s a psychological disorder and they refuse to turn off these devices for you.”

According to the American Cancer Society, smart meters give off non-ionizing RF radiation.

The American Cancer Society also classifies RF radiation as a possible carcinogen that could increase an individual’s risk to cancer, though the non-profit says it isn’t clear what risk, if any, there might be from living in a home with a smart meter.

“There’s new studies coming out, new peer-reviewed science showing smart meters are harmful,” said Hart. “It has been documented in several cities that they also cause fires and the burning down of homes.”

PG&E officials, though, argue that smart meters transmit during a small fraction of the day and do not cause structural damage to homes.

The California Council on Science and Technology, a non-partisan non-profit corporation established by the California Legislature, conducted a 2011 study on the health impacts of RF from smart meters that concluded that RF exposure levels from smart meters are below the Federal Communications Commission’s safety thresholds.

Am I being tracked?

When you plug into an electrical socket, flip on your light switch, or turn on your computer, you are connecting to an electric grid — a network of transmission lines, substations, and transformers that deliver electricity from the power plant to your home or business.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, our current electric grid was built in the 1890s and today consists of more than 9,200 electric generating units with more than 1 million megawatts of capacity connected to more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines.

As digital and wireless technology has evolved over the years, the desire for a new kind of grid that can handle the increase of computerized equipment and manage the complexity of electricity has come to the forefront — a smart grid.

Similar to the Internet, the smart grid would work with the electrical grid to respond digitally to quickly changing electric demands.

In October 2009, when President Barack Obama announced the American Recovery and Reinvestment Smart Grid projects, he described the significance of the transition to a smart grid, saying “It will make our grid more secure and more reliable, saving us some of the $150 billion we lose each year during power outages. It will allow us to more effectively transport renewable energy generated in remote places to large population centers, so that a wind farm in rural South Dakota can power homes in Chicago.”

Proponents of the smart grid claim the network would increase integration of large-scale renewable energy systems, integrate customer-owner power generation systems, including renewable energy systems, and improve security through the use of wireless technology, such as smart meters, to collect data efficiently.

“Smart meters have a variety of benefits,” Ehlers said. “PG&E takes customer privacy very seriously, and the information based on customer accounts is mostly for the customers to use, to track and see their usage.”

Smart meter adversaries, though, argue that information transmitted from the meters into the smart grid gives utility companies access to data that violates the privacy of consumers.

“Every appliance has its own unique electrical fingerprint,” local resident Darlene Engebretsen said. “Smart meters know when you turn on your dishwasher, your hair dryer, or your electric stove. Throughout the day, 24-7, all your usage patterns are visible to the company and anyone else who hacks into your system… It’s an illegal wiretap, which violates your constitutional rights. It’s another big brother thing.”

Death of a smart meter

During a Feb. 11 Nevada City council meeting, more than 30 attendees spoke to the council about their views and experiences with smart meters, imploring them to approve a ban on the devices.

“We’re talking about the health, safety and privacy of our constituents,” local resident Judi Caler said. “A house with a smart meter can be hacked; they can tell when you’re home and where you are in your home.”

PG&E reports that around 96 percent of meters with Nevada City addresses have already been converted to electric and gas smart meters, though 3 percent of city residents have opted out, and currently use a traditional analog meter.

According to Hart, more than 55 local governments in the state oppose the smart meter program, and 15 have passed an ordinance prohibiting them in their community, though those numbers could not be confirmed by each individual jurisdiction.

According to City Manager Mark Prestwich, local governments do not have any direct regulatory control over utility companies. Prestwich said the city would revisit the issue at a future meeting, though, that would be dependant on completion of other prioritized city agenda items.

Council member Jennifer Ray said she felt Nevada County Stop Smart Meters! presented the city with a lot of anecdotal information.

“There really are no longitudinal studies to substantiate the claim that it really causes health problems,” Ray said. “Correlation isn’t causation, and that’s something that is important to keep in mind. However, I am supportive of individual’s personal rights to opt out, if they chose to do so.”

In December 2014, the California Public Utilities Commissions, which regulates all privately owned electric, natural gas, and telecommunications companies in the state, including PG&E, approved a smart meter opt-out provision that allows utility providers to recover $35.44 million in costs associated with providing consumers opt-out options.

Currently, PG&E offers an opt-out program for all of its customers that includes an initial $75 fee to replace a smart meter with an analog meter, and an ongoing $10 monthly fee for three years, though PG&E CARE program customers get reduced fees.

“We understand that some customers have expressed concerns about smart meters, and we support individual customer choice,” Ehlers said. “We want those customers to know that they can opt out of the smart meter program at any time, for any reason. We definitely encourage them to contact us if they want to opt out, and we’re happy to quickly process those requests.”

PG&E officials say the average time it takes to replace a smart meter is 10 days, but Stop Smart Meters! members claim that it takes much longer. Nevada City council member Duane Strawser decided to test that claim by requesting PG&E to remove the smart meter attached to the outside of his home.

“It took one day shy of a month to get the smart meter changed on my house,” Strawser said. “We wanted a true analog meter put on the house, but we were given a meter that is half smart meter and half analog, what they call a Trojan or a hybrid. So I have left another voicemail with PG&E asking for the analog meter, which is what we asked for and what we were promised.”

Strawser also attempted to get the smart meters removed from his local business Tour of Nevada City Bicycle Shop, and was told businesses are not allowed to opt out. Chris Kaiser, president of California Organics, a Nevada City organic whole foods market, got the same response.

“Just as a property right issues, it seems like there’s a disrespect of personal property,” said Kaiser. “We get these things installed almost in the dark of night, and we have to beg and pay for a way to get out of it… But there is a non-escape clause for businesses, we’re not allowed to opt out.”

According to Ehlers, smart meters allow businesses to better understand their energy usage and utilize technology available to them. CPUC officials told The Union that the commission didn’t consider businesses for the opt-out program, and would not specify the reasons why businesses were not included in the December opt-out provision.

To get more information, or opt out of PG&E’s Smart Meter program, call 1-866-743-0263.

To contact Staff Writer Ivan Natividad, email inatividad@theunion.com or call 530-477-4236.

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