The PG&E director who oversees the utility's controversial Smart Meter program has admitted using a false name to try to join an online group opposed to the smart meters and secretly monitoring other online forums critical of PG&E.
The disclosure by William Devereaux, senior director of PG&E's Smart Meter program, is likely to be yet another public relations disaster for the utility, which is eager to overcome widespread resistance to its Smart Meter program even as it seeks to restore public trust in the wake of the deadly San Bruno gas pipeline explosion.
Consumer advocates were quick to express dismay. "Covert electronic surveillance does nothing to help PG&E rebuild the public trust it squandered," said Mark Toney, executive director of TURN, the Utility Reform Network.
Activists first discovered the subterfuge late last week, when Devereaux tried to join the California EMF Coalition, an online discussion group for citizens who are concerned about electromagnetic radiation.
Sandi Maurer, a Sebastopol resident, uses Google Groups to moderate the coalition's online discussion group, and she often e-mails people before allowing them access to the small group. On Thursday, she said she received an e-mail from someone using the address "firstname.lastname@example.org."
"I live in Oakland where Smart meters have been sweeping across town and wanted to learn more about them and join the conversation to see what I can do to help out here," wrote the person, who signed his name as "Ralph."
But the e-mail message revealed that the e-mail actually belonged to William Devereaux of PG&E. Maurer recognized the name immediately -- she met Devereaux in person at a Smart Meter forum last spring.
"He's in charge of the entire Smart Meter program," said Maurer. "He's disguised himself, used a false name, said his name was Ralph and pretended to want to help our cause. It's symbolic of what PG&E has become: deceptive and untrustworthy."
Devereaux, 45, admitted to the subterfuge in an interview with the Mercury News on Monday.
"As part of understanding what our customers are thinking, we have been monitoring activity on the Internet," he said . "I anonymously joined a couple of anti-smart meter Web sites in the spirit of understanding what they are thinking. We're trying to understand the points of view of these folks. The intent was to better understand what was behind much of the resistance."
Devereaux admitted that he used the name "Ralph" to try to join the group, which he acknowledged was a "mistake."
He said he acted on his own without informing other PG&E executives. It was not immediately clear how the utility would react to his disclosure. Devereaux reports to Greg Kiraly, PG&E's Vice President of Smart Meter Operations, who could not be reached for comment. Devereaux said he has "no idea" if he will be asked to resign.
Utility companies across the United States and around the world are racing to install so-called smart meters, digital devices designed to record energy usage in hourly and daily increments.
PG&E has been widely blamed by state regulators and others in the growing smart-grid industry for installing the new meters without educating consumers and dismissing their complaints. In the summer of 2009, scores of consumers in Bakersfield and elsewhere complained that the meters were causing wild spikes in their electric bills. An independent survey found nothing wrong with the meters, but berated PG&E for dismal customer service.
In recent months, as smart meters have increasingly been installed in left-leaning counties like Marin, Sonoma and Santa Cruz, health issues have come to the forefront. PG&E and the PUC have been flooded with complaints related to fears of electromagnetic radiation, or EMF, from the smart meters. Some consumers have said that the meters are making them physically ill, while others are worried the meters will increase their risk of brain cancer.
Activists claim that Devereaux also used "manasota99" to subscribe to SmartWarriorMarin, another listserv, and they suspect that that is how PG&E got advance notice of a Rohnert Park protest Oct. 28.
"The fact that this guy who is responsible for the entire Smart Meter program is spending his time trying to infiltrate groups that are worried about health issues shows that PG&E has something to hide," said Joshua Hart, a Scotts Valley activist with a coalition called Stop Smart Meters. "These are symptoms of a deeper malaise, and a corporate culture of dishonesty and recklessness."
Hart said PG&E routinely deletes public comments about Smart Meters on its Facebook page, including references to scientific studies about RF, and has ripped down "Do Not Install" signs that customers have placed at their homes. PG&E spokesman Matt Nauman said Monday he knew nothing of those allegations but that PG&E would look into them.
"People with electrosensitivity are always accused of being tin foil hat crazies," said Hart. "But this is not like cell phones, where you can choose to not to buy them."
Hart called for an immediate moratorium on any further Smart Meter installations.
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her on Twitter at Twitter.com/danahull.