How Smart Are the “Smart” Meters?

Against the Current, No. 150, January/February 2011

Barri Boone

WHAT DOES IT really mean when a corporation calls a new product “smart?” Gas and electric corporations are calling their newest technology “smart meters.”

These new wireless meters replace the old wired meters in measuring the amount of gas and electricity used for each household or business, and record the exact time of day it is used.

The purpose? “Providing information to give you control over how much energy you use and when you use it.”

The descriptions from utility companies also have a “green” twinge: The “program is expected to benefit our environment by decreasing demand on the power grid, better utilizing renewable energy sources and reducing the need for additional fossil-fuel power plants.” Sound good?

By 2009, 76 million metering devices were installed around the world and will double by 2013. A report by the Berg Insight projects 302.5 million smart meters throughout the world by 2015.

In California there are three utility corporations, with Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E) turf being central and northern California. With over a quarter million employees servicing 15 million customers, PG&E plans to install 9.3 million smart meters by 2012.

The projected cost is $2.2 billion. For that price they will be able to teach each of us to not wash our clothes, shower, go online or charge our electric car at peak times (10 am to 6 pm), thus lowering our energy usage and our bills.

Government mandates and incentives are major drivers of these installations. The U.S. federal stimulus package is allocating $4 billion in smart grid grants. European countries have pushed smart meter mandates, and the Chinese and Korean governments also have aggressive smart meter plans.

The new “state-of-the-art” meters are supposed to be installed over the entire United States. They were first installed in Texas and Nevada.

Corporate Payouts and Controversy

Since 2000, PG&E has spent more than $112 million on lobbying. During the first six months of 2010 alone, it spent close to $44 million — a 600% increase over 2009. Much of this year’s funds have gone toward an initiative — Proposition 16, which would make it difficult for California counties to start their own electric utility companies, in competition with private utilities. It was voted down last June.

PG&E also spent money on federal legislation, “cap and trade,” and other measures on “clean” energy. Donations to Democrats included $10,000 to then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The issues surrounding smart meters have been discussed at various city and county council meetings as well as at the state commission, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). They are:

• Accuracy of the meter readings and skyrocketing utility bills

• Fire hazards and interference with other electronic devices in homes

• Whether users or PG&E shareholders will shoulder the billion dollar program costs

• Options of hard-wired, shielded cable instead of wireless meters, which could eliminate many of the problems listed

• The public’s right to opt out

• Privacy concerns including the possible misuse of personal data, increasing burglary risk, and hacking into bill paying, banking and other private communication

• Health and safety of both users and workers who install the meters.

One under-researched potential danger is that meters and their data collectors broadcast frequent bursts of powerful microwave radio frequency (RF) radiation. Each meter “repeats” the signal from other neighborhood meters. This creates a dense mesh of ongoing RF radiation in our indoor and outdoor environment 24/7, the consequences of which are frankly unknown.

People have no ability to opt out of the “electro-smog” radiation. Tests that have been done on healthy white men do not replicate the needs of women, children, the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, or people with medical implants.

The industry claims that the amount of radiation is below the tolerances set by the World Health Organization. But many scientists point out that those standards are based on thermal damage, not on the range of harm caused by non-thermal effects including DNA breaks, cancer and neurological symptoms.

Furthermore, current standards do not take into account the cumulative exposures from a variety of sources including cell phones, cordless home phones, wi-fi, and CT scans that have been recently known to emit overdoses of radiation from eight to thirteen times the standard amount.

In mobile home parks, where many seniors retire, there can be clusters of two to four meters. In apartment buildings, there can be up to 30 meters on a wall with no effective barrier between the wall and those — often children or the elderly, the most vulnerable to microwave radiation — sleeping on the other side.

“The Definition of Arrogance”

PG&E’s mantra regarding these problems is that smart meters meet all the FCC standards. One question they refuse to answer is: Who set the standards and what are the criteria?

The CEO of PG&E, Mr. Peter Darbee, addressed the issue of radiation by comparing smart meters to cell phones: “If you live in a home with a smart meter, you have to live in that home for 13,000 years before it compares to your use of a cell phone for one year.”

Many doctors, scientists and activists such as Josh Hart in Santa Cruz County, have responded to this claim. Says Hart: “The FCC regulations on EMF (electromagnetic field) safety were written by the telecommunications industry. If the smart meters were being installed in Russia, they would be illegal.”

Other countries that have higher microwave exposure standards than the United States include Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Switzerland, Belgium, China and Italy.

At a public California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) meeting, Hart jumped up on the stage and presented Darbee with a “dumb meter,” a cardboard box with photos of a smart meter pasted on it, with the word “smart” replaced with the word “dumb” (see

Many counties and cities have passed ordinances against any further installation of smart meters in their area, until an independent investigation of all the issues the public is concerned about.

Councilmember Caput of Watsonville stated, “PG&E is the definition of arrogance!” Mayor Alejo said, “PG&E failed to carry out adequate testing before rolling out the smart meter program. Communities can stand together and send a message…This will continue throughout the state unless PG&E begins to respect the wishes of local governments and halts further deployment.”

Later, a Watsonville building official handed PG&E a $100 citation after a smart meter had been quietly installed at the Register-Pajaronian newspaper after the city had passed a moratorium on new installations.

In Capitola, meters were installed by Wellington Energy, a company working for PG&E. For three days, residents picketed the lot where the workers loaded the meters preparing to install them in the city. During the protest, PG&E management refused to allow the trucks to leave the yard, and tried to prevent workers from taking leaflets warning about the problems, including longterm health issues.

Sheriffs were called, but they refused to arrest the protestors, as they respected the moratorium resolution passed earlier by the Capitola Board of Supervisors. At night after the third day, the trucks were moved to an undisclosed location and the yard was put up for rent. The protestors got their message out through the sympathetic local media.

Behind the Pipeline Explosion

PG&E’s safety record in general does not inspire confidence. Two days before the ninth anniversary of the 9-11 attack, there was an explosion of a natural gas pipeline owned and managed by PG&E in San Bruno, California, just south of San Francisco. Eight residents were killed, 52 injured, 37 structures destroyed and eight more homes damaged. A state of emergency was declared.

Newscasters said that several residents in the area had reported the smell of a gas leak two weeks before, and that PG&E had done nothing. PG&E spokespersons have said that there was no report. Firemen said they had never seen anything like this before.

Mike Wiseman filed suit late in August this year, before the San Bruno blast, alleging a coverup involving PG&E leaders who knew about safety violations.

Wiseman is a transmission pipeline worker on paid leave for the past one and a half years because of speaking out. He worked for PG&E for 10 years (never at San Bruno). After making the allegations he claims he was held against his will at a Stockton hotel and his job was threatened.

Wiseman claims that a PG&E supervisor often ignored safety rules and violations. He says one of the jokes in his department is “PG&E management puts the safety cap on during safety meetings and takes it off when we all hit the field.”

Workers were sent into a ditch to repair a gas line without proper training. Later, they faced retaliation. Wiseman says, “The higher you go up the chain of command, the bigger the money is, so the bigger the coverup.”

PG&E responded in a statement that they protect employees who make complaints, that their policy calls for work to stop if there are any safety concerns, and that they don’t retaliate. Wiseman’s lawyers question that assertion.

A Corporate Predator

PG&E has been in existence for 105 years. It owns and services 48,580 miles of natural gas pipelines in northern California. It gained notoriety with the movie “Erin Brockovich,” which told the story of a case against PG&E in Hinkley, California. PG&E had contaminated the ground water there with high levels of hexavalent chromium for 30 years and tried to cover it up.

Brockovich was able to get the largest medical settlement in history, $333 million for over 600 Hinkley residents.

In 1996 Governor Pete Wilson signed a law written by the CPUC. PG&E was encouraged to sell its power plants and purchase “pollution control credits.” California began purchasing electricity from open-market power generators.

PG&E lost $6.6 billion in 2000 due to these measures. It stopped paying dividends to shareholders, defaulted on several loans, and went to the edge of bankruptcy.

In 2000 the labor department said that PG&E had a psychiatrist unfairly find a veteran manager unfit to do his job, citing “paranoid delusions” as the cause. The manager had gone public about safety problems at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

State Senator Jackie Speier reported in a 2001 letter to constituents that California energy prices were 30% higher than the rest of the country. The CPUC appointed by Republican Governor Pete Wilson was against any rate freeze or other consumer protection. PG&E sold $10 billion in revenue bonds for costs to secure power.

Speier believed that out-of-state power generators (Duke, Dynegy, Mirant, AES/Williams and Reliant) illegally increased their profit margins and gouged California customers. There were investigations by the State Attorney General, CPUC, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to protect its parent company, PG&E Corporation.

In 2001 PG&E was responsible for a serious of “blackouts,” causing hours of disruption of electricity that continued for months. No plans were made for alternate sources of generators for those dependent on electrical equipment for life-support, causing demonstrations and protests from the disability movement, whose lives were on the line.

San Francisco Chronicle writer David Lazarus reported, “just weeks after handing out $50 million in bonuses while on the verge of financial collapse, PG&E is asking a judge’s permission to award $17.5 million in additional payouts to the management team that guided the utility into bankruptcy.”

A PG&E spokesman explained, “It’s necessary to keep senior management from jumping ship and going to a competitor.” Robert D. Glen, CEO of PG&E, earned over $2 million in salary and bonuses for 1999.

Risky Pipelines

In September a consumer advocacy group, TURN, released PG&E memos showing that it considered the 30-inch pipeline in San Bruno as among its top 100 riskiest sections, in need of replacement. PG&E recommended a $5 million project to replace 7,481 feet by November 2013. Mindy Spatt from TURN asked, “If you know you have a compromised pipeline in the area, and consumers are calling you saying they smell gas, what more do you need to know?”

PG&E acknowledged that it took nearly two hours to close the aging manual shut-off valves on the 30-inch pipeline that exploded. State officials reported that if the valves had been automatic, the devastation caused to lives and property would have been measured in minutes, not continuing for hours.

As Governor Schwarzenegger was in China during the incident, acting governor Abel Maldonado ordered PG&E to check for leaks in the thousands of miles of pipelines. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) called for accelerated inspections of the pipelines and announced a hearing to be held in mid-September by a congressional committee.

President Obama’s plan, if passed, could increase the $1 million fine for the most serious violations by utility corporations to $2.5 million. We all know the feeble effect of fines in preventing the unnecessary deaths of countless miners.

Obama’s proposal would also increase the current 100 inspectors of pipelines by an additional 40 — over the next four years! In fact, there are millions of miles of pipeline in the United States, which agencies are declaring need to have regular inspections.

PG&E operates 42% of California’s pipeline mileage and has been charged with 60% of the violations to federal safety laws since 2004. The CPUC, the state commission responsible for enforcing the federal codes, has been recently revealed to have a hands-off record, never having imposed penalties against PG&E for not obeying the law!

Federal investigators are examining possible causes of the San Bruno rupture, including external corrosion problems on pipelines that have not been properly tracked. Other ongoing problems now coming to light: missing deadlines to fix leaks or inspect repairs, no annual drills on shutting down gas during emergencies, poor record keeping, inadequate communication with the public and political entities. The head of a pipeline safety consulting firm summed it up saying, “The watchdog isn’t watching!”

The federal National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), after a 1981 accident in downtown San Francisco, brought attention to the shutoff valve issue. Twenty-nine years later, in San Bruno, the manual valves were nearly two miles apart. Federal and State officials have stated that they will “push” for automatic shutoff valves.

One must wonder, of course, why they must “push” instead of “mandate”  corporations to put safety first under penalty of fines, jail and government takeover of all properties. At countless meetings, discussions lead to the question: does the government govern the corporations or do the corporations just dictate to the politicians?

Power to the People!

This whole fight with PG&E is part of a grassroots fightback across the country. One “Freedom Forum” in Santa Cruz county had a packed audience of Libertarians, Republicans, Democrats, Greens, members of the Peace and Freedom Party and independents, united in calling for serious oversight of utility companies, and for health and safety legislation with teeth to protect the community.

If ever there was a time to build a movement independent of the two corporate parties, insisting on the safety of human beings over corporate profits, now is that time — on every level from health services, education and banking to housing and the environment.

We can learn from our ancestors in the Native American movements to join hands in a circle and remind ourselves that we are all kin: the people in your tribe, those in a distant tribe, the animals, trees, sky, water — the earth!

We need to organize to protect ourselves from those who choose to destroy it all, including their own souls, in their greedy attempts to own and control. The slogan “Power to the people!” now has an even deeper meaning.

ATC 150, January-February 2011


  1. Smart meters are clearly a better way to meter gas and electricity. All the whining in this article is just that. None of the points against smart meters makes any sense. The “RF Smog” designation is particularly galling – if RF frequencies were dangerous we’d all be dead long since. We’re already surrounded by them everywhere. RF energy is so weak that it has no biological impact at all.

    This whole argument is silly – written by a true Luddite.

  2. PG&E has already killed people in Hinkley, California and San Bruno California and other places less well known.

    Why are you people complaining about Wireless smart meters? Do you think you deserve better than those adults and children that have already been killed by PG&E?

    I just don’t understand you people. PG&E has a record of killing and sickening people throughout the state and that’s not going to change.

    Why don’t you people just accept it, like the rest of us?

    AND: Thank you to commenter Dan King “Ludites” above.
    Not only does Dan accept it, but he taunts those people who are doing something about it, and that makes me feel better as I ain’t lifting a finger, just like Dan.

    Dan King’s logic that ‘Everyone must die from wireless radiation’ to show it is dangerous is very cool. Even cigarettes, asbestos and DDT combined only had millions suffering and dying in their own homes and hospitals, a small percent of “Everyone.”

    So Dan’s logic comes from his own words, nothing more, but he delivers them with confidence and authority and I like the way they sound.

    Look, PG&E is our government and we voted for them, so just let them be.

    Get used to it.

  3. ATC, while discussing the bad things a corporation like PG&E does, should not mix “apples with oranges”. Microwave radiation is one thing while natural gas leaks and pipeline failures are an entirely different matter.
    The only biological effects of microwave radiation appears to only be possible thermal effects. And in that case, the thermal energy is so much smaller than that of the sun that humans don’t have to worry bout it. We feel the warmth of the sun but cannot detect any warmth from nonionizing electromagnetic radiation from cell phones, radio reception, power lines, home electric wires, etc.
    PG&E insisting their “smart meters” are safe for humans is undoutedly true, although that company cannot be relied upon to always tell the truth. The fact that other countries have nonioizing radiation standards more restrictive that the U.S. only means they are more in error than we are. The fundamental scientific problem, after more than sixty years of experimenting, is our inability to show any deleterious biological effect of nonionizing electromagnetic radiation. The major example to illustrate this experimental fact is MRI images which require absolutely gigantic magnetic fields compared with any other fields humans are subjected to. All the experiments with rats have shown no effects as well.
    It seems apparent that the cost of these “smart meters” is offset by the company cost savings from salaries for personnel to read the old analogue meters. This has to amount to many tens of millions of dollars each year based on the several billions of dollars the meters cost.

    Sheldon C. Plotkin
    Los Angeles, CA

  4. “Jail PG&E Execs” Is Demanded On 0ne Year Anniversary of San Bruno Explosion & Deaths

    On September 9, 2011, the one year anniversary of the explosions and death at the gas explosion in San Bruno, trade unionists, activists and Terry Baum, a candidate for Mayor of San Francisco, called for the jailing of PG&E executives and for the utility being taken over and run as a public utility. Production of Labor Video Project:

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