Some unhappy SmartMeter recipients take matters into their own hands
If there is one indisputable fact about Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E)’s SmartMeters, it’s that the rollout of the new technology, which began in mid-2010, hasn’t gone smoothly—especially in Santa Cruz.
In response to mounting opposition to the wireless meters—alleged health effects are chief among the concerns—the utility provider implemented a delay list in April, soon after submitting a proposal for a SmartMeter opt-out plan to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).
Assemblymember Bill Monning (27th District) advocated for the opt-out plan and interim delay list with PG&E and the CPUC based on complaints he was hearing from constituents. “Although I feel the verdict is still out on whether these meters pose a threat to human health, I believe if people feel strongly [that] they do not want to have one on their homes, they should be offered an alternative,” he says.
One percent of PG&E’s customers are currently on the delay list, according to company spokesman Greg Snapper. Those who still have an analog meter and wish to delay installation of a SmartMeter can do so by calling (877) 743-7378, he adds.
However, many SmartMeters were installed before the list appeared and still others have been installed on homes that were, in fact, on the delay list. So far, 16,575 SmartMeters have been installed on Santa Cruz County homes, coming out to 9 percent of PG&E’s total goal of 184,170.
Patrick Mulhearn is Monning’s field representative and, as such, deals closely with the community’s SmartMeter concerns. Mulhearn says between five and 10 people come in to the office each week to discuss their worries and that there are around 42 residents with whom he corresponds regularly about the issue. Most of them are requesting that their SmartMeter be removed. For those who were not on the delay list, he can only recommend that they call the CPUC to file a complaint, keep everything in writing, and await the commission’s forthcoming ruling on PG&E’s opt-out plan, which may happen sometime next year.
But Mulhearn has succeeded in having PG&E remove two SmartMeters from local homes: in both instances, the customers were on the delay list but received a new meter regardless.
Snapper could not comment on why PG&E put SmartMeters on delay list homes, but says, “If for any reason we didn’t take down the customer’s request to delay their meter correctly we will work with that customer and resolve the issue.” The solution will most likely be to swap the SmartMeter out with what Snapper calls a “digital non-SmartMeter”—akin to a SmartMeter without the radio capabilities.
But for those who weren’t on the delay list, getting an unwanted SmartMeter removed is very unlikely. This fact led Aptos resident Monise Sheehan to take matters into her own hands by ultimately removing a SmartMeter from her home without PG&E’s permission.
Sheehan, a staff research associate with UC Davis and self-described techie, didn’t have an opinion “one way or the other” about SmartMeters when one was installed on her home in July.
Her attitude changed, however, over the following weeks as she began experiencing new and unwelcome sensations: a tingling in her arms and legs, a higher than usual body temperature, and—later on—a ringing in her ears when she was in certain rooms. Trips to the doctor turned up nothing. It wasn’t until she Googled her symptoms that Sheehan learned that others with similar health problems suspected SmartMeters to be the cause. She visited an ear, nose and throat specialist about her ringing to “make sure, one last time that it wasn’t me,” but checked out fine.
“All I knew was that my special little world—my calm, safe home, where the only thing you would hear is a leaf falling—is now ringing, so I can’t even sleep in my bedroom,” she says.
In her first call to PG&E, in early September, Sheehan was told that she was placed on an “emergency 48 hour call list” for people with health complaints. She wasn’t contacted within 48 hours, and so began a lengthy back-and-forth with the corporation. After seeing a video from the Sept. 22 CPUC meeting in which President Michael Peevey authorized the removal of a SmartMeter on the home of Chandu Vyas, a man who spoke during the public comment period, Sheehan called PG&E one last time to request that hers be removed, too.
Frustrated at the company’s refusal, she decided to act: she purchased an analog meter and, on Sept. 24, enlisted the help of a technician to swap the two.
“It was a very scary thing to take the meter off,” says Sheehan, adding that she photographed both meters before and after installation in order to document her power usage. “I follow the rules of society. It was scary for me to go against. You can be afraid, you can be filled with fear, but I had to take care of my own health. So I did it.”
She then called PG&E to tell them what she’d done. “I told them so they could come get their meter and calibrate my meter and get a reading,” she says.
“I wasn’t trying to steal electricity.” This development embroiled Sheehan in another round of conversations with PG&E, in which she says the company told her that she’d committed a federal offense, broken a state law, might be fined, may have her service discontinued, and could expect a visit from an investigator. She says they also told her that a technician would be out reinstall a SmartMeter.
Jeff Nordahl, a member of the Santa Cruz-based group StopSmartMeters! believes Sheehan was put in an unfair position. “Most people agree that that’s an impossible position to put people in: suffer in your own home, or take matters into your own hands and be treated like a criminal,” he says. “Those are the only options. While [the CPUC] takes months if not years to do their bureaucratic putzing around [and rule on the opt-out plan], people are actually suffering.”
Snapper, of PG&E, could not speak specifically to Sheehan’s case, nor would he disclose how many such cases they’ve seen. However he did point out the safety risks of removing a meter without a PG&E professional.
“We understand that some of our customers are concerned about SmartMeters, but customers must not tamper with utility equipment,” Snapper says. “Tampering with equipment, including SmartMeters, is a public safety issue. It can be very dangerous, potentially causing burns to our customers, electrocution and fires.
“One important thing to understand,” he continues, “is that when customers tamper with meters they are violating state laws and regulations that are intended to protect people from unsafe activity.” The regulation he refers to is CPUC Rule 16 d.1.f., which states that a customer may not tamper with PG&E equipment.
According to local attorney Dana Scruggs, a customer who violates this rule would not be breaking the law. “The clause … does not indicate they ‘broke’ any laws, nor are they subject to any other civil or criminal liability,” he says.
However, the rule does assert that a customer’s service may be discontinued as a result of tampering. Snapper confirms this, but says the company will work with customers to resolve the issue before resorting to turning their power off.
None of the threats Sheehan reports receiving from PG&E became reality. Instead, after stonewalling the company’s many attempts to reach her, PG&E offered—and she accepted—to have her store-bought analog replaced with one of their “digital non-SmartMeters.”
“The moral of the story,” says Nordahl, “is that if people want to pop [their SmartMeter] out right now, they should do it. It’s all bluff from PG&E.” An Oct. 29 post on the group’s website, stopsmartmeters.org, added that they do not “encourage anyone who is not qualified to work on electrical equipment or to change their meter themselves. … We are promoting residents who have requested ‘smart’ meter removal and have been met with a denial by their utility company to find a qualified professional who can swap the meter out for them.”
The group helped Seabright homeowner Caitlin Phillips find a way to remove the SmartMeter from her home. Her story echoes Sheehan’s, but contains a slightly different ending. Phillips was not on the delay list (she didn’t know there was one), but told the installer who came to her property—a duplex with her family in one half and a renter in the other—not to put in SmartMeters. Although he initially acquiesced and left the property, she returned from walking her dog to find one mounted on her tenant’s side.
“That day I asked [PG&E] to take it off and they said they couldn’t help me,” Phillips says. “That night I had the ill effects from it”—the metal fillings in her teeth buzzed uncomfortably—“so the next day I went and got an analog [meter]. The day after that I had an electrician put it on.”
Like Sheehan, Phillips says she wasn’t trying to steal power or break any laws. “I felt like I was protecting my family, and that it was something I had no choice but to do,” she says. And also like Sheehan, Phillips’ action resulted in a heated dialogue with PG&E.
At the Thursday, Oct. 20 CPUC meeting in San Francisco, Phillips read a letter that detailed her experience. She ended by saying, “I don’t know where to turn to. Can you please help me resolve this issue?” And they did—on Friday, Oct. 28, PG&E replaced the unauthorized analog meter on Phillips’ home with a PG&E analog. A video of the installation can be found on stopsmartmeters.org.
Earlier that same week, GT asked Snapper about the digital non-SmartMeters that have been installed on some homes (including Sheehan’s) and whether the company would give an analog meter back to customers who requested one, as Phillips was. “We don’t go back and install analog meters,” he said. “It’s our policy not to go back and put in analog meters.”
However, when later asked about the Oct. 28 installation of an analog meter on Phillips’ home, Snapper would only say that PG&E gave her an analog meter because of her appearance before the CPUC. “The CPUC announced at its last public meeting that PG&E would provide an analog meter to this customer and we have worked closely with the customer to address their concerns,” he says.
Following her successful battle for an analog meter instead of a SmartMeter, Phillips visited the local offices of Santa Cruz’s state and federal representatives to share her experience. “I encouraged them to have people go to the CPUC and speak at their public forum as well as send letters, email and phone calls,” she says, hopeful that her experience may empower others.
Photo: REBEL WITH A CAUSE Following several unmet requests for PG&E to remove the SmartMeter from her home, Aptos resident Monise Sheehan, with the help of a technician, did it herself. Photo by Keana Parker.