PG&E’s Opt-Out Options for Wireless Smart Meters

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.