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Town Hall with Supervisor Mark Stone

Mark StoneThe Board of Supervisors will consider extending its moratorium on PG&E’s SmartMeters at its Jan. 10 meeting. What would extending the moratorium accomplish? Does the Board have any plans to approach the installation of SmartMeters differently than it has been?

 

The Board of Supervisors voted on Dec. 13 to direct county officials to return on Jan.10, 2012 with an analysis of the existing moratorium, as well as a draft ordinance to extend that moratorium for an additional year.

As to what extending the moratorium would accomplish, you have to look back at what happened prior to, and after, the county’s first moratorium was enacted back in 2010. At that time, PG&E’s initiative to install SmartMeters in millions of homes was well under way. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which is the state agency charged with regulating PG&E, had already approved the $5 billion price tag for the plan, a cost which, as you know, is passed on to the customers as the meters are installed. But from the beginning, PG&E’s rollout has been marred by complaints of billing inaccuracies, health and privacy concerns, and the company’s poor customer service in addressing these concerns. Dissatisfied with PG&E’s apparent indifference, customers began taking their complaints directly to the CPUC, whose response, unfortunately, was equally indifferent. It appeared for a time as if customers, held captive by a utility that holds a virtual monopoly on electricity, had nowhere else to turn except their representatives in local government. City and county governments soon began to add their collective voices to the individual complaints, and many passed resolutions either opposing SmartMeter installations, or banning them outright through moratorium ordinances similar to the one we enacted here in Santa Cruz County. Though PG&E has clearly demonstrated that it is not legally required to honor any moratorium passed by local governments, our opposition, ignited by the inexhaustible energy of a small but vocal group of dedicated folks, successfully convinced the CPUC to order PG&E to provide options for customers wishing to opt out of the SmartMeter program.

As to whether/how the Board of Supervisors will take a different approach to the installation of SmartMeters, I think we’ll have a clearer picture of that after our Jan. 10, 2012 meeting.

2. What are the options that the CPUC is considering?

When CPUC officials ordered PG&E to come up with an alternative plan for customers wanting to opt out of the SmartMeter program, shutting off power to a family with young children two weeks before Christmas was almost certainly not what they had in mind. What PG&E apparently failed to appreciate is that concern for one’s health or the health of one’s family trumps everything else. PG&E’s decision to cut power to folks in our community simply because their last act of desperation was to replace the SmartMeter with an analog meter was a despicable one. I’m pleased that power has been restored to these folks, and I would urge the company in the strongest possible terms not to repeat that mistake.

What is before the CPUC right now is PG&E’s “radio-off” proposal, which would allow customers to opt out by switching off the wireless function of the SmartMeter. Initially, PG&E planned to charge customers $135 to $270 up front to have the device’s radio transmitter disconnected. Those customers would then pay $14 to $20 per month for a technician to read their meter. While CPUC supports PG&E’s radio-off concept, it indicated that it isn’t willing to allow the utility to charge its customers as much to do it. CPUC’s proposed ruling would allow the utility to charge an upfront fee of $90 and a monthly charge of $15 for most customers, much less than what PG&E asked for in its initial proposal. For CARE customers—lower income or elderly customers on special low rate plans—CPUC’s proposal would waive up-front fees and charge them $5 per month. Once a CPUC approved opt-out plan is put into effect, the delay list would no longer be valid, and all delay customers currently on the delay list would be transitioned to a wireless SmartMeter unless they elect to participate in the opt-out option. The earliest the proposal can come before the CPUC’s Commissioners for a vote is Jan. 12, 2012.

The Board voted unanimously on Dec. 13 to notify CPUC that it opposes any fees levied on those who choose to opt out of SmartMeters. As Supervisor Ellen Pirie and I stated in our letter to the Board, “Customers with health concerns related to SmartMeters should not be forced to buy protection from these meters.” And imposing opt-out charges on low and fixed-income customers enrolled in the CARE program is unconscionable.  

This holiday season, my wish for PG&E is that you may one day “see the light” rather than just profit from it. To the CPUC, I wish you success in your efforts at coming up with the most affordable and equitable solution to a debacle that arose from PG&E’s rotten job of explaining to its customers how the new meters could benefit them.  

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