California's Latest Revolt: Against Smart Electric Meters

Installation of a PG&E smart meter.
Installation of a PG&E smart meter.

Sometime in April, Pacific Gas & Electric (PCG) put a brand new "smart meter" on the home I rent in Marin County, Calif. We were never notified or asked if we wanted one. The installer just came one day while we were out, and it was a done deal. As a confirmed environmentalist, I thought this should have been a good thing. Smart meters will, in theory, play a key role in managing energy consumption by households like mine.

The devices are wireless, so they eliminate the need for meter readers and save companies like PG&E money while reducing the carbon footprint and pollution resulting from running fleets of trucks to tally power usage at millions of homes. Smart meters also can show a homeowner patterns about energy usage and even notify them about energy usage anomalies or spikes in power demand.

Smart meters will ultimately allow for more dynamic pricing in electrical power and for communities like Southern Marin, where I live, to make a choice to reduce power on days when the grid is near capacity due to a heat wave, while it remains reliably cool in my neck of the woods.

Dangerous Side Effects?

All of these goals seem laudable and logical. Yet there is a brewing smart meter revolt across the Golden State. Last week, the Marin Realtors Association called for a halt to all new smart meter installations in Marin County. Their rationale? They feared the smart meters would increase the levels of electromagnetic radiation around homes. This would give buyers pause and reduce real estate values in the already depressed (by historical standards) market. The former hippie enclave of Fairfax, located in Marin, has passed an ordinance to ban smart meters.

This revolt, however, is hardly the exclusive province of the NPR set or the real-estate mafia. In several counties in the politically conservative Central Valley, thousands of homeowners have claimed that the new smart meters caused rapid spikes in their electrical bills, even though their power consumption remained relatively constant. (The utilities blamed those spikes on fast increases in the cost of power during particularly toasty periods.)

Other homeowners have said they don't want another source of radiation (meaning, radio waves) near their homes, considering the steady increase of all manner of electromagnetic-emitting devices from WiFi routers to cordless phones to garage-door openers. These are often the same homeowners who react suspiciously to new cell phone towers in their neighborhoods, a topic that has become increasingly contentious. Even though engineers generally say there's no risk, at least a handful of influential doctors have chosen to reserve judgment on the topic.

Privacy Invasion?

Running underneath many of the objections is uneasiness with the "Big Brother" aspect of smart meters. Do we really want the utility company to know when we're home, when we're washing or drying our clothes, whether we're taking too many showers (or not) or probing for other "energy saving" insights that could eventually come from smart meter technology as it heads toward a logical conclusion of monitoring every electrical outlet in a home?

This has resulted in some surprisingly strong reactions from homeowners. Some have put locks over their electrical meters to prevent the switch. Others call the smart meter push an invasion of privacy and "Un-American."

The California Smart Meter Revolt hasn't slowed the rapid development of smart-meter technology, with dozens of companies bringing to market smart-meter systems that provide more granular detail and instant-message reminders, or consoles showing real-time energy usage to homeowners. Those include stock market titans such as General Electric (GE) and Cisco Systems (CSCO).

But Next Time, Please Ask

Smart meters will eventually prevail. But visceral reaction against these gadgets, particularly by the Prius-driving, tree-hugging set of Southern Marin County -- arguably one of the more liberal parts of California, if not the country -- certainly hints at the high barriers smart meter makers face in gaining acceptance and overcoming a wall of suspicion and fears of invasions of privacy.

As for me, I didn't make much of a stink about the new meter. These things are, after all, good for the environment. Glitches are to be expected. I realize most of my privacy is already gone. But anytime a big company comes and installs a wireless device that measures what's going on inside my home without notifying me or explaining what is happening, that's a different issue. And in this case it's enough to make me want to tear the thing out and toss it on the trash heap.