Weekly Update

How PG&E Can Avoid Protests Over Wireless Smart Meters

California state regulators are bowing to pressure from the Northern California protesters who want to ban all wireless smart grid devices on the grounds that they’re bad for your health. Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission told Pacific Gas & Electric it had two weeks to come up with an alternate smart meter product for customers who don’t want a 900-megahertz radio-enabled smart meter attached to their house.

Just how PG&E reacts could have a major impact on other utilities’ smart meter plans. While Commission President Michael Peevey said PG&E could charge a “reasonable cost” to customers who demand it, opt-out still opens the potential to mess with PG&E’s $2.2 billion, 10-million smart meter rollout. If the trend spreads to utility regions beyond Northern California, that could open the entire industry to doubt.

Sure, multiple studies show wireless smart meters offer far less exposure to electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation than cell phones, microwaves and other devices deemed safe by the Federal Communications Commission, but the protesters involved have their own studies to back up their belief that EMF is a threat. And while people have a choice when it comes to cell phones and microwave ovens, they don’t get to choose their electric meters — until now, that is.

So, what are PG&E’s options for complying with Peevey’s order? While the utility hasn’t given any details, here are a few options I believe it will be mulling over in the next two weeks:

Unplug: Why not just let opt-out customers keep their old manual meters? The problem is, that could open PG&E up to seeing what’s now a tiny, fringe movement against smart meters grow to wreck its entire project’s business case. At least one protest group says it wants wireless smart meters banned from whole neighborhoods on the alleged health risks. If the family next door refuses a wireless smart meter to protect their children’s health, what good parents won’t wonder if they should be doing the same?

Stonewall: PG&E has already installed nearly 8 million wireless smart meters out of the 10 million it plans to replace. Could it claim that any opt-out alternative will be too expensive for ratepayers and regulators to tolerate? That style of argument hasn’t worked well for PG&E lately — witness last year’s defeat of the PG&E-backed Proposition 16. PG&E’s smart meter complaints aren’t limited to health concerns; consumers have been pushing back on cost, accuracy and fairness issues as well. It seems a poor time for the utility to dig its heels in.

Hardwire: What if PG&E gave opt-out customers a smart meter that uses the same wires that carry electricity to carry data? Most smart meters in North America use wireless communications, but Duke Energy is working with Echelon‘s smart meters using powerline carrier (PLC) technology. Echelon’s technology is also catching on big in Europe, giving PG&E plenty of utilities to learn from.

PG&E doesn’t lack experience in the technology. Some of its first smart meters used a PLC system from Aclara, a subsidiary of Esco Technologies, until it found that up to 5 percent of those meters were performing below expectations and switched to wireless technology from Silver Spring Networks. PG&E is still using Aclara for smart gas meters, but those use Aclara’s wireless technology instead of PLC. At the same time, Aclara has been improving its PLC technology, and recently announced its 36th utility customer, double from a year ago.

Hardwired communications may well be the best option for PG&E. Layering two separate smart meter networks over the same customer base could be expensive, but CPUC has said PG&E can charge customers at a “reasonable” rate. Duke is planning to use multiple forms of communication for its smart meters. I’m curious to see if PG&E decides it’s willing to take a similar path — or if it has another plan up its sleeve.

Question of the week

What are PG&E’s best options for offering customers a non-wireless alternative to its smart meters?