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Summary:

Pacific Gas & Electric is going to have to come up with a non-wireless alternative for customers afraid of what low-power wireless meters might do to their health. What are its options?

SmartMeter_PG&E

Pacific Gas & Electric learned last week that it’s going to have to take the complaints of its wireless smart meter protesters seriously. The utility has to come up with a non-wireless alternative for customers afraid of the potential health risks of low-power wireless meters. So what are its options?

Over at my weekly update at GigaOm Pro (subscription required), I get into some of the choices PG&E may be mulling over as it figures out how to comply with the latest regulatory wrinkle in its $2.2 billion, 10-million smart meter deployment. In case you missed it, California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey said Thursday that the utility must submit plans for an opt-out alternative to PG&E’s current wireless smart meters, and do it within two weeks.

The protesters who’ve driven that decision have convinced about 30 Northern California local governments to declare moratoriums on smart meter installations, saying their electromagnetic fields (EMF) pose risks to human health. No matter that such moratoriums aren’t legally able to stop PG&E from installing meters. And studies show that wireless smart meters offer far less exposure to EMF radiation than cell phones, microwave ovens and other wireless devices.

In other words, these protesters seem convinced of their cause, no matter what the evidence against it. That means that the utility might not be able to counter Peevey’s order with further appeals to the preponderance of scientific studies that say their meters aren’t a threat to human health.

PG&E could simply skip over opt-out customers, leaving them with their old electromechanical meters. But that’s not an appealing option for PG&E, which depends on the savings of getting rid of meter readers for the lion’s share of the cost reductions to justify the smart meter deployment. If the revolt against wireless smart meters spreads to more customers, PG&E could see the entire business case crumble.

There’s another option, however, which while not ideal for PG&E, might give it a way to save the value of the smart meter concept — switching to wire-line communications. Companies including Echelon and Aclara make smart meters that communicate via powerline carrier (PLC) technologies that use power lines to carry data back and forth. Using power lines to carry data could offer advantages over wireless, although it also carries some key limitations, including the fact that it can’t work when lines are downed in outages.

For more information on how powerline carrier technologies might play into PG&E’s list of choices — and to comment on what other options I might be missing — check out my update at GigaOm Pro.

Image courtesy of Juverna via Creative Commons license.

  1. Mitch Thompson Tuesday, March 15, 2011

    “Using power lines to carry data could offer advantages over wireless, although it also carries some key limitations, including the fact that it can’t work when lines are downed in outages.”

    A downed line probably won’t be able to provide power to that wireless transmitter, either.

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  2. Jeff St. John Tuesday, March 15, 2011

    True – but some wireless transmitters have batteries for just that contingency.

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  3. If the powerline is down? You wouldn’t have power for the meter to meter (unless the power is wireless). One problem with wireless is interference from both physical and electrical obstacles. I see them working both in tandem if possible for redundancy.

    If the wireless module breaks but the building still has power then it would give a false positive. With wired it is either down or up.

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  4. When using PLC and there’s an outage that in itself indicates that there is an error (ie interruption in service) and also indicates where in the grid the outage is. Instead of a drawback I see this as an aid in detection and monitoring.

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  5. When you combine PLC with a communications provider like Ambient Corp you have the Duke Energy solution. No delay’s like with Mesh, and the ability to work real time on any part of your system when needed. Ask Duke energy for there white paper they gave out at Distributech.

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  6. …and radiation is good for you too. Ann Coulter said so.

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  7. Nobody wants these damn inacurrate digital smart readers? Why? They are about as fair as a digital cansion gambling machine. Crooked as hell. All you have to do is change a variable in the software and you can make the meter read any output you want, travel 10% faster, 20% faster, add extra chargers at night when nobody is looking, or just jump to higher numbers. Its a fraud and a rip off and consumers know it, and don’t want these things.

    Not to mention the inteference they cause with Home Wifi equipment and people running HAM radio stations. I didn’t sign up for someone to run a free transmitter off my power pole using my electricity, and neigther did any of the other customers.

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