In a move being closely watched by utilities across the country, state regulators are expected to vote Wednesday to give PG&E customers the right to "opt out" of having a smart meter and keep their old meters -- for a fee.
The opt-out proposal, crafted by California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey after months of discussion and debate, comes after a year of highly organized protests by consumers opposed to smart meters because of concerns about their accuracy, privacy implications and impact on health.
Customers who want to opt out of smart meters would be required to pay a $75 fee and a monthly charge of $10. Low-income customers would pay an initial fee of $10 and a monthly charge of $5. The fees are to cover the costs of installing analog meters on homes that have smart meters but want to switch back, as well as the labor costs of paying workers to read the analog meters each month.
Pacific Gas & Electric plans to install about 9.7 million smart meters on homes and businesses throughout its vast Northern California territory. So far, about 90 percent of all smart meters are installed, with deployment on track to be completed by the end of this year.
It's unclear how many of PG&E's more than 6 million customers will pay to keep their old meter. Many smart meter opponents fiercely oppose having to pay to keep analog meters, and others say they cannot afford the fees.
"Yes, we want the analog meters," said Sandi Maurer of Sebastopol, who opposes smart meters because of health concerns and does not have one. "But we are beyond mad about the fees. This is extortion. I'm being asked to pay for a meter that I already have."
PG&E says about 90,000 residential customers signed up on its "delayed installation" list to avoid getting a smart meter, according to data PG&E compiled through mid-January. The delay list was put in place after millions of meters had already been installed and does not include customers who have smart meters and want them removed.
In Santa Clara County, just 1.9 percent of PG&E customers are on the delayed installation list. The percentages are far higher in other parts of Northern California: 11.8 percent of PG&E customers in Santa Cruz County and 12.7 percent in Mendocino County.
While some customers are concerned that smart meters have led to erroneous bills or that their personal energy consumption data is vulnerable to hacking by outside parties, many of the critics have focused on health concerns. A small but well-organized group of PG&E customers worry that electromagnetic radiation from the meters' wireless mesh network is causing migraines, nausea and other health issues. They have protested on the Carmel lawn of PG&E Chairman Lee Cox, blocked trucks belonging to PG&E contractors in Sonoma County and flooded state regulators with their concerns.
Plans expected to pass
PG&E, staffers with the PUC, local communities and numerous consumer advocacy groups have spent months wrangling over a variety of opt-out plans, how much it will cost and who should pay for it. The proposal being discussed Wednesday has been revised three times and is expected to pass. More than three dozen cities, including Santa Cruz and Sausalito, have passed local ordinances opposing smart meters, and regulators must decide if entire communities could opt out in a future proceeding.
"Is 'community opt-out' a condo complex, a city or an entire county?" said Jim Tobin, an attorney who represents Marin and Santa Cruz counties. "And how does an opt-out apply to someone who lives in an apartment building?"
While some questions remain unanswered, state regulators say consumers have the right to opt out of smart meters for any reason.
"Eligibility to opt out of receiving a wireless smart meter is not predicated on whether the meter has affected the customer's health," reads the 41-page proposed decision.
PG&E's smart meters use embedded software that records electric use by the hour and transmits the data to a nearby data collector, which then relays the information directly to PG&E through a secure wireless network known as RF (radio frequency) mesh, giving the utility and consumers up-to-the-hour data on their electricity consumption.
"We believe in individual choice for our customers when it comes to the meters at their homes," said PG&E spokesman Greg Snapper. "We will support the CPUC's decision and work quickly to put in place any alternative."
Once smart meters are installed, utilities will be able to offer "time of use" pricing, which will charge consumers higher rates for energy used during peak hours -- typically late afternoon and early evening -- and lower rates during off-peak hours.
Smart meters have been widely heralded as a way to bring greater efficiency to the nation's electrical grid.
But as utilities across the country have installed them, the consumer backlash has taken the industry by surprise.
Last year, the Maine Public Utilities Commission passed a landmark decision that allows the 612,000 customers of Central Maine Power to opt out of smart meters, also for a fee. In Maine, customers can keep their current analog meters for a one-time charge of $40 and a monthly charge of $12.
"About 8,000 customers have opted out so far," said John Carroll, a spokesman for Central Maine Power. "That's about 1.3 percent."
Though smart meter opposition has cropped up around the country, protests have been most vehement among PG&E customers. Wednesday's vote at the California PUC only covers PG&E customers, but opt-out scenarios are also being considered for San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison. State regulators in Nevada could vote on an opt-out proposal for customers of NV Energy as early as February.
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.
To read the proposed decision regarding PG&E's smart meter opt-out proposal, go to: