Although state and utility officials are contending that past scientific studies support their use, advanced or smart electricity and natural gas meters have drawn a number of protests from consumers in Northern California who allege there are public health risks from advanced metering devices that use radio frequencies to communicate with a network.

Consumers again last Thursday testified at a California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) meeting, urging the state to halt its transformation to total use of advanced metering systems among the private-sector utilities, contending that they know of people being made "sick" by the new meters. At the same CPUC meeting, an independent consultant offered verification of the accuracy and reliability of the meter devices in the face of growing criticism of the meters by some customers of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E).

In April, faced with doubts raised by consumers and some state elected officials late last year, the CPUC named Houston-based energy/utility consultant The Structure Group to assess the PG&E advanced metering implementation program (see Daily GPI, April 1).

State representatives and consumers last year had raised concerns about the accuracy of the new meters. Following the investigation of the technology's accuracy consumer complaints about health issues emerged.

"Subsequent to this investigation we also began receiving complaints about radio frequency fields and electrification issues related to smart meters," said Julie Fitch, director of the CPUC's energy division. "These issues, or the examination of any health effects related to them, were not within the scope of [The Structure Group] report."

While reiterating that the independent investigation shows the PG&E's meters are working to industry standards, there is a clear need for the utility to "improve some of its instrumentation, installation and customer education protocols," said CPUC President Michael Peevey. "They need to more closely reflect the industry's best practices."

Millions of smart meters for gas, electric and water utilities have been or are scheduled to be installed throughout the United States, and almost all of them use technology that includes low-frequency radio signals to collect data, Peevey said.

A dozen consumers from parts of PG&E's service territory in the San Francisco Bay and Santa Cruz areas, some claiming medical and doctorate degrees, alleged that there are 120,000 "electric magnetically sensitive people" in California who are subject to various maladies from being in close contact with the advanced metering devices. One consumer called for an "immediate emergency moratorium" on smart meters, and some cities served by PG&E have proposed resolutions urging a moratorium, if not statewide, then in their areas.

The complaining customers and state officials agree that what they refer to as "electrical sensitivity" is not recognized as a medical condition by the health care industry. Nevertheless, they have urged the CPUC to hold hearings on the issue. At their meeting last Thursday, CPUC members did not indicate that they would pursue this path.

Any concerns about radio frequency and other electromagnetic health risks have been examined and dismissed by both the power industry and the Federal Communications Commission, which studied the issue as it relates to cell phones, CPUC officials said.

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