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California: a future with ... analog meters

Today we close out the week's columns on the California Public Utility Commission's decision yesterday to approve analog meters as the opt-out option for customers of Pacific Gas & Electric.

A few points may be appropriate to addend to Tuesday's column, "PG&E Smart Meter Opt-Out: Decision by Regulators," and yesterday's column, "California: Mob Rule on Analog Opt-out Solution?"

I won't say "final" points because PG&E is merely one of three major California investor-owned utilities and some of these issues continue to surface across the country. Indeed, readers will note that the issue of cost allocation for opt-outs—should those opting out pay or should all customers pay for their costs?—and whether entire communities can opt-out remain to be determined for PG&E by the CPUC.

First, let's revisit my headline reference to "mob rule" and the CPUC's decision to jettison both PG&E's and its own preferred solution, instead adopting the complainants' preferred solution to leave analog meters in place.

There are many practical reasons why a smart meter with the radio off or no communication module at all is far preferable to an analog meter, particularly in the former's ability to collect interval data for manual retrieval. The radio frequency radiation exposure argument falls apart when science is involved, because the cited devices emit so little and  because so many ordinary household sources give off equivalent levels, all well below all thresholds set by standards setting organizations.

But this argument is not governed by science, it is governed by emotion coupled with zero scientific evidence. The trend is a disturbingly familiar one—that a few individuals or ad hoc groups can thwart the will of the vast majority on an issue critical to modern society. No doubt  those rejoicing in the CPUC's decision are oblivious to the damage caused to the purpose of interval metering and to the damage to their own environmental goals.

Now, to "mob rule." I think it's a fair question to ask whether the CPUC displayed the most selfless and perceptive approach to the customer service it touts when it allowed complainants to win on analog meters as the opt-out option. Or, did the CPUC simply cave because the time and will to reach a decision in the matter were eroding under the sheer weight of complainants' noise levels and rejection of reason and scientific evidence?

I think the importance of this question will be apparent to most readers interested in public discourse and the means by which a self-governing people actually accomplish their goals.

Now, to the complainants, who may be emboldened to think that they've scored some sort of victory, when all they've done is set back California's progress in cutting demand for power, for empowering themselves and for rational civic discourse. 

It would be naïve to think that individuals and groups will be satisfied with yesterday's decision or any future decisions that may even go their way. So it will be intriguing to see the reaction among these objectors, who may push so hard for absolute "victory" that they end up enraging the majority and marginalizing themselves. I'd guess that that's the ultimate outcome, if we're lucky.

In this particular case, it is no stretch at all to consider the possibility that very few of the objectors actually believe their own rhetoric about the purported harm of RF emissions that has no basis in scientific fact. Anyone with a passing knowledge of science or biology knows that you cannot prove a negative, and that standards bodies have the statutory and moral obligation to monitor ongoing research, should changes in standards be necessary. But in PG&E's case, there would seem to be a disproportionate number of electro-magnetic frequency sufferers in its service territory—in fact, by my back-of-the-napkin math, more than in all other areas of the country combined. Everyone, including the frothing objectors, need to ask themselves why. And answer honestly.

The CPUC, however, has wisely inserted into the record the appropriate language to apprise all parties that it can return to reexamine its decision in light of changed circumstances. Should cynical opponents use the opt-out option to harm PG&E's ability to meet California's energy policies and goals, I can foresee the CPUC reversing yesterday's decision. Indeed, if PG&E can show that older analog meters no longer accurately measure power usage, that would be another instance in which the many subsidize the few, for no good reason.  

But don't take any of this from me, because although I've consistently provided links to bona fide source material, I may have only faked those sources and constructed a massive hoax to mislead readers. Besides, I'm obviously in the pocket of electric utilities and blindly cheerlead for their every ruinous mistake. R-r-r-right? So goes the logic of some of the correspondence that I receive on this issue.

So turn instead to the Environmental Defense Fund, which yesterday included this paragraph in its explanation of the CPUC's decision in the PG&E case.

"Smart meters are a key component of the smart grid," the EDF wrote. "They unlock air quality, climate pollution and public health benefits by enabling two-way, real-time communication that gives households, small businesses, manufacturers  and farmers (and the utilities that serve them) the data they need to cut energy use and electricity costs."

On the health impact of RF emissions, the EDF consulted the World Health Organization, the California Council of Science and Technology and an independent expert, Leeka Kheifets, a UCLA professor who sits on the Standing Committee on Epidemiology for the International Commission on Non-ionizing Radiation Protection.

I think readers know the experts' conclusions. Some readers understand and accept scientific evidence, while others reject anything and everything that stands in the way of having their own way, consequences be damned. If California is ungovernable, if the United States of America is sliding into global irrelevance, look no further for the cause. There are some fundamental issues of self-governance underlying this story.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily


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