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Council on Smart Meters: Strongly Worded Letters

After lengthy debate and public input, powerless panel backs Huffman's call for health study and will express its concerns in writing.

The Mill Valley City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to send two letters about Pacific Gas and Electric's ongoing installation of so-called SmartMeters, expressing its concerns about the devices and joining Assemblyman Jared Huffman's call to study the potential health risks they pose.

The council did so after more than an hour of public testimony from about a dozen residents and local health professionals, concluding its discussion with a reality check: local governments have no regulatory power over the smart-grid technology of utilities like PG&E, and the regulatory bodies that do have the power already gave them the green light.

"We're nobody here," Councilman Andy Berman said, noting that the council took up the issue just after President Barack Obama made smart-grid technology a cornerstone of his $50 billion stimulus proposal. "This is not council stuff. Let's get to the right people on these very important issues, but let's not take this council down a rat's nest."

Berman suggested that the Marin Energy Authority (MEA), which has not joined entities like the boards of supervisors in San Francisco and Marin, as well as the Town of Fairfax and the Marin Association of Realtors, in calling for a moratorium on PG&E's SmartMeter installations, was better suited for such a local debate.

Councilwoman Shawn Marshall, who sits on the MEA board, replied that MEA was in a predicament because it is an energy procurement agency and smart-grid technology fell under the umbrella of transmission and distribution of energy. The MEA board has so far deferred its position to its member cities but has a technical committee studying the issue, she said.

"That is really weak," Berman said.

"I did not say that we will not take a position, but we're not there yet," Marshall said.

The council voted to write two letters. The first will go to the California Public Utilities Commission, asking the agency to make SmartMeters optional for people who are sensitive to the radio frequencies emitted by the meters and to express its concerns about the possible health effects. A separate letter will go to the California Council on Science and Technology, which advises the state on science and technology issues, joining Huffman's request for a new study of the meters' health effects.

SmartMeters measure and log data on households' energy use, using wireless radio signals to transmit data on power usage from individual homes straight to PG&E, eliminating the need for manual meter readers. The devices give consumers the ability to access their consumption data online, which could help people cut energy use. The devices are also said to provide a better alert system to utilities for blackouts.

In addition to the federal push for a smart grid, state law requires every major utility with 100,000 customers or more to develop a smart-grid deployment plan by March 2011.

Critics have questioned the devices' accuracy, but last week a CPUC-commissioned study report determined that the accuracy problems, which began in the San Joaquin Valley area in late 2009, have been fixed.

Smart meter opponents have also suggested that the devices could expose consumers' personal information to hackers, but Vice Mayor Ken Wachtel, who met with CPUC officials in August, said he was told that the commission would not allow PG&E to turn on the devices' wireless functionality until security protections are in place.

The potential health risk of the devices has dominated much of the debate. Their emission of radio waves is cited as the primary health concern, particularly for people who are sensitive to radio frequencies.

Steve Lett of W. Blithedale Ave. urged the council to ask for a moratorium and to allow consumers to opt out of their installation.

"We have a history of introducing technology before we realize what the damage is," he said. "We don't know if these are safe. We need to put a moratorium on this and at the very minimum people need to have a choice."

But PG&E insists that the devices only emit a tiny fraction of common household items like wireless Internet routers, baby monitors, garage door openers, microwave ovens and cell phones. The Federal Communications Commission has approved the meters' safety.

Mill Valley resident Linda Brauner said the installation of SmartMeters throughout Mill Valley would create a broader network of radio waves than those items.

"We're going to be enmeshed in a grid of electrical impulses from the neighborhood," she said. "Those other things are a choice, these meters are not

Sheffield Ave. resident Sarah Butler said the meter location at her house is just a short distance from her daughter's bedroom.

"My daughter does not sleep next to a microwave, but if a SmartMeter is installed, she will be sleeping seven inches from it every night," she said.

Wachtel restated the council's powerlessness, as well as that of individual citizens.

"People want power to say no, but in our meeting (with the CPUC), it was made clear to us that you don't know have the freedom of choice on this," he said. "There is nothing you can do as a city or as a citizen to stop PG&E from changing your meter."

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