EDITOR’S NOTE: PG&E restored power to the homes in this story via a short-term solution after this article went to press.
SmartMeter drama leads PG&E to shut off residents’ power
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is known to make exceptions around the holidays for customers who are delinquent on payments. If it’s close to Christmas, the utility provider channels the “goodwill toward men” sentiment and leaves the power on for those tardy patrons. But this seasonally inspired leniency didn’t apply to at least four Santa Cruz County households who had their power disconnected by PG&E in the week before Christmas.
“They usually never turn off power two weeks before Christmas even if you haven’t paid your bills, and I’ve always paid my bills,” says Bianca Carn, a Live Oak resident and mother of two whose power was shut-off on Tuesday, Dec. 13.
PG&E spokesperson Greg Snapper says Carn, and the others whose homes went dark, weren’t covered by the clemency clause because they removed PG&E SmartMeters from their homes. “[The exception] doesn’t apply because removing a meter is a serious public safety issue,” Snapper says. The residents who lost power were among nearly a dozen local women who returned unwanted SmartMeters to the PG&E payment center on 41st Avenue on Wednesday, Dec. 7. (Six Capitola police officers showed up and shutdown the center before the group could dialogue with employees, but the women managed to leave the meters on the counter before clearing out.)
All of the women who returned meters received letters from the company threatening to disconnect their service if they did not comply and allow a SmartMeter (or in some cases what PG&E is calling a “digital non-SmartMeter”) to be reinstalled on their homes. As of press time, the power had been shut off at the homes of Carn, Dianna Glidden, Aptos residents Monise and Peter Sheehan, and 75-year-old grandmother Peggy Lindsey. (Visit goodtimessantacruz.com to read Lindsey’s story.)
California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) rule 16.d.1.f states that a PG&E customer may not tamper with equipment, and may face discontinuation of service as a result. “Discontinuing anyone’s service is always a matter of last resort,” says Snapper, but he adds, “Our customer’s safety and that of their neighbors must come first.”
However, those who removed their SmartMeters say they did so for the same reasons—to protect their health and safety.
Carn knew little of SmartMeters (nor did she know there was a delay list for them) until one was placed on her home, just 10 feet from where her 8 and 6-year-old children sleep. Shortly thereafter, both children began having terrible headaches and Carn’s son was suffering from bloody noses. After PG&E refused to remove the meter, she enlisted the help of the Santa Cruz-based group StopSmartMeters! and a professional electrician to remove the wireless meter herself.
“I’m not an activist,” she says. “I’m not into politics. For me to be having to do this… I couldn’t even do oral book reports when I was a kid. Now I’m on the news.”
StopSmartMeters! founder Joshua Hart says that the organization has helped around 20 residents remove their SmartMeters, and that there are 30 to 40 more waiting to do so.
The fact that people are having their power turned off as a consequence is not deterring people, Hart says.
“We’re encouraging people in solidarity with the people who are now being threatened to remove their SmartMeters and take them to the PG&E office or to our assembly member or senator,” says Hart. StopSmartMeters! is working with an attorney to help the involved customers deal with PG&E.
Snapper discourages customers from taking this advice. “We ask that any customer considering the dangerous practice of removing a meter to please call us first so we can work with them and continue service,” he says.
The customers who removed SmartMeters all replaced them with store bought analog meters, akin to those PG&E used before the SmartMeter rollout. PG&E claims that it is a safety hazard for non-PG&E authorized analogs to be on homes. As of press time, the company had offered all involved families to have a “digital non-SmartMeter” installed instead. None took them up on this offer, although with Christmas approaching and two small children to think of, Carn says she felt torn. “I feel like it’s the olive branch, but I also feel like it’s making a deal with the devil,” she says. Her daughter is on the autism spectrum and is highly sensitive to noise, thus a generator may not be an option for the Carns like it is for the other households without power. Still, she’s skeptical of the digital meter the company offered and worries that it, too, could have negative effects on her family. “I feel like I’d be agreeing to something that I don’t fully know what it’s going to be,” she says.
PG&E installed one such digital meter on Monise and Peter Sheehan’s home in the fall after Monise had removed her SmartMeter and replaced it with an analog. The health symptoms she’d had with the SmartMeter returned when the digital meter was installed, and she once again removed a meter against PG&E’s will and replaced it with an analog.
“We are just stunned at the intransigence and inflexibility of PG&E, not to mention the feeling that we are being punished for standing up for our health and rights,” says Peter Sheehan. “The idea that this is a safety issue is just total b.s. and is a convenient angle for PG&E.”
Even with nighttime temperatures dipping into the 30s, the Sheehans insist that they will not submit to the utility provider’s provisions.
“I think we’re being treated pretty abysmally,” Peter says. “Everything else in my life I can change—I can change my phone company, Internet provider, my TV, all those things I can change, but I can’t change my utility. I’m stuck with PG&E. I have no choice, no freedom at all, and it seems like no rights whatsoever.”
Photo: Keana Parker