Bye bye ban

PG&E will begin installation of its SmartMeters throughout the city this month. The utility company and the city have been at odds over SmartMeters ever since the city passed a moratorium banning the devices.

City not enforcing ban

The city’s 3-year-old effort to ban SmartMeters will come to an end this month as PG&E begins to install the self-reading utility meters throughout Sebastopol.

A SmartMeter is an electronic device that records consumption of electric energy in intervals, usually an hour or less, and communicates that information daily to the utility for monitoring and billing.

According to PG&E, SmartMeters enable customers to check their energy consumption and learn exactly how much energy a home uses, which can lead to “smarter energy choices.” Because the SmartMeter is connected to the Smart Grid, PG&E learns of outages instantaneously, enabling the utility to resolve issues more efficiently.

Despite its touted benefits, many community members in Sebastopol oppose the SmartMeter. During the utility’s first attempt to install the meters in 2013, PG&E was met with strong resistance. That resistance continues today with opponents claiming the devices pose health, safety and security issues.

“Our biggest concerns revolve around the increased radiation,” said Sandi Maurer, board member of the EMF Safety Network. “There are so many health risks associated with it.”

The resistance began as early as 2012, with the city writing a letter to PG&E requesting the utility company wait to install the meters until the results of a December 2014 California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) hearing determining whether or not an entire municipality could opt out of the SmartMeter program.

In 2013 during a special city council meeting, the city adopted a moratorium banning SmartMeters. The ordinance made installation a crime punishable by a $500 fine.

According to Sebastopol City Manager/City Attorney Larry McLaughlin, the ban wasn’t going to stop PG&E.

“It wasn’t a lawful ban,” McLaughlin said. From day one, he believed the ban was “unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable” because the CPUC has overarching jurisdiction on electricity and power statewide.

Nevertheless, the ban was enforced for about two or three days, McLaughlin said. The Sebastopol Police Department received one phone call of a breach wherein the caller requested the installer be arrested.

No arrests were made, however the situation catapulted conversations between PG&E, Sebastopol Police Chief Jeff Weaver and McLaughlin.

“Basically the head of PG&E security at the time called Weaver and told him PG&E was going to be quite aggressive,” McLaughlin said. “His initial idea was to let an employee get arrested so that PG&E could use that arrest and fight it in criminal court.”

The plan wasn’t acted upon, McLaughlin said. “A day or so later he came back and said the ban was unconstitutional and that they would go to court over it,” he added.

McLaughlin directed Weaver to cease enforcement of the ban.

The utility company never took the city to court but, in fact, upheld the city’s wishes, withdrawing plans to install meters. “We agreed to a couple of exceptions, including the Barlow and another housing development,” McLaughlin said.

All was quiet for the next 18 months. Then, this November, PG&E contacted McLaughlin with a new plan for meter installation.

“The feel they have to uphold the CPUC’s rulings or they’d be in violation with the commission,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin believes the installation plan will be swift. “Basically whenever they are on a property for any reasons, like reading a meter,” the utility will make the switch. “They plan on being fairly aggressive and installing meters in a fairly short period of time,” he said.

PG&E is meeting this week to outline an installation schedule, according to PG&E’s media representative Deanna Contreras.

PG&E plans on engaging in outreach via a letter campaign to inform customers of the upcoming switch, Contreras said. The letter will explain the SmartMeter plan, as well as opt-out options.

Customers may opt out of the SmartMeter program, for a price. Those customers paying regular rates (non CARE — California Alternate Rates for Energy) are required to pay a $75 initial fee plus a $10 monthly charge for up to three years. CARE customers must pay a $10 initial fee plus $5 monthly, also for up to three years.

The fees are meant to offset the costs of operating the older analog meters. A 2014 CPUC decision allows PG&E to accrue $35.35 million dollars for providing the opt-out program.

“We find the three year period to be reasonable, as it is a sufficient duration for the utility to recover a portion of the utility’s incremental costs in setting up services associated with accommodating the request of the opt out customer,” the decision reads.

In 2014, PG&E estimated roughly 54,000 customers within its service area, which serves approximately 16 million people throughout northern and central California, would opt out of the SmartMeter program. That’s less than one-half of 1 percent of customers.

The ratio of opt-out customers could be significantly higher in Sebastopol. 2014 numbers show 21,000 SmartMeters are to be installed citywide. Approximately 1,100 customers in Sebastopol have already opted out.

Opt out is the only legal option opponents have of fighting the installation.

Nevertheless, McLaughlin said he’s mentioned to PG&E there may be “civil unrest” and attempts to deny PG&E access.

“We’ve heard rumblings around the city,” McLaughlin said. “Something about linking arms and not allowing PG&E in. I did advise PG&E there could be confrontations.”

Maurer said the EMF Safety Network is “organizing” a protest effort. “We’d like PG&E to back off and leave us alone,” she said.

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