SmartMeters — automatic meter reading devices already in 73 percent of buildings in Alameda County — are the first step in creating a national smart grid that will enhance energy efficiency and make widespread adoption of renewable energy easier. The new meters communicate data from houses and businesses to PG&E through a mesh network of radio signals. In replacing antiquated analog meters that require a human to read, SmartMeters allow people to measure their energy consumption in real time in order to reduce it — or at least reduce their bills by using energy during off-peak hours.
But PG&E’s SmartMeters have generated considerable controversy. Critics contend they overstate home energy use and cause electricity bills to spike. The cities of Berkeley, San Francisco, Sebastopol, Fairfax, Camp Meeker, Cotati, and Bolinas, along with Santa Cruz County have all come out in favor of a SmartMeter moratorium. And now there are a small but growing number of activists who contend that SmartMeters may be harmful to human health.
For its part, PG&E maintains that SmartMeters are safe, and emit radio frequencies that are well within Federal Communications Commission standards. The utility says electric SmartMeters transmit data for only a fraction of a second every four hours and are far weaker than other everyday radio-frequency emitters like cellphones, cell towers, and wireless Internet.
But as PG&E races to outfit every home and business in the Bay Area with a SmartMeter, there’s some reason to doubt the utility’s assurances. Independent environmental and electromagnetic-fields consultants, for example, have found that SmartMeters pulse far more often that PG&E claims. In addition, there’s evidence to suggest that the peak pulses are far greater in intensity than the “average pulse” PG&E owns up to, thereby raising questions about safety, particularly in children, whose bodies absorb radiation at a far greater rate than adults. In dense urban areas, residents also have raised concerns about banks, or clusters of upwards of thirty meters on some apartment buildings.
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