Following customer complaints of health problems, California regulators on Thursday asked Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) to allow its customers to opt-out of the ongoing effort to install smart natural gas and electric meters. Some customers have alleged that radio frequencies used by the meters are causing a wide range of ailments.

For months the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has been bombarded at its twice-a-month business meetings by angry PG&E customers, mostly from the suburban San Francisco Bay area, claiming serious medical problems that they allege are due directly to the installation of the meters (see Daily GPI, Sept. 8, 2010).

PG&E has said that its new meters, using small 1-watt radios that allow two-way communication, transmit relatively weak radio signals, resembling those of many other products most people use every day, including cell phones, baby monitors and microwave ovens. A major radio station, by contrast, usually transmits with 50,000 times as much power, the utility said.

In announcing that he was asking PG&E in the next few weeks to submit plans for giving customers the opt-out option, CPUC President Michael Peevey said only a relatively few portions of the PG&E services territory have drawn complaints about smart meters. Both Southern California Edison Co. and San Diego Gas and Electric Co. have installed millions of the new meters without drawing any large outburst of complaints as continues in the PG&E territory, Peevey said.

"Virtually every speaker [over months] who has addressed this subject has been a PG&E customer," Peevey said. "We have not had complaints about RF emissions or other concerns about smart meters from customers of other utilities in California."

Neither PG&E's large neighboring public-sector utility, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, nor the Southern California utilities have had any large outpouring of customer complaints.

Peevey said he spoke with PG&E President Christopher Johns about bringing to the CPUC "a proposal or series of proposals that will allow customers with an aversion to wireless devices the option of being metered without the use of wireless technology." Peevey said he asked for proposals that the state regulators can consider that allow "some form of opt-out" for objecting customers that would be paid for by those customers. He said he asked to for the filing in the next two weeks.

In defense of the meters, regulators and the utility cite a preliminary study released in January by the California Council on Science and Technology titled "Health Impacts of Radio Frequency from Smart Meters." Its primary conclusions said the Federal Communications Commission provides a currently accepted factor of safety against known thermally induced health impacts of smart meters and other electronic devices in the same range of RF emissions. And exposure levels from smart meters are well below the thresholds for such effects.

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