The town of Fairfax, California, sure has it out for Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) these days. Last week, I wrote about concerns in the larger Marin County (in which Fairfax is contained) that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) standards for smart meters may not be sufficient to protect public health.
Late last week, as part of a California Public Utilities Commission thought leaders event, Peter Darbee, CEO and president of PG&E Corporation, spoke to that issue in San Francisco, quoting my Intelligent Utility Daily coverage in his presentation.
Comparing emissions created by cell phones to those created by smart meters, with the understanding that the smart meter is only transmitting 45 seconds per day, and the assumption that a person is talking on his or her cell phone for 10 minutes a day, Darbee said: "If you have a home with a smart meter, you have to live in that home for 13,000 years before it compares with your use of a cell phone for one year."
But in the meantime, the town of Fairfax (current population approximately 7,500) has upped the ante even further. On August 4, the Fairfax town council unanimously passed an urgency ordinance that places a temporary moratorium on the deployment of smart meters and related equipment within the town, citing concerns about accuracy, data security, health questions and more.
Any violations of the moratorium may be charged as infractions or misdemeanors as set forth in the town code, and will also be "deemed public nuisances, with enforcement by injunction or any other remedy authorized by law."
PG&E representatives present at the meeting agreed voluntarily to immediately halt the deployment of the meters, and promised to set up a series of community meetings to hear and to respond to the questions and concerns of Fairfax residents and businesses.
Darbee echoed this in his CPUC presentation on Aug. 12, saying, "What I've asked people to do is look at the whole question of RF, identify the different issues that can be raised, and to undertake our best efforts to respond to what are the questions, and then to evaluate what channels should we use to get that information out.
"We believe that by anticipating these questions, which I admit we haven't done as well as we should have, analyzing them, understanding them, responding to them and getting out to people as quickly as possible is the best way to stay ahead of this. If we don't, then what happens is there gets to be kind of a snowball coming at us, and at that point, people don't have their ears open to listen to the answers, and therefore it's more difficult to have a dialogue. So that's what our intent is; that's what we'd like to work through."
(It is worth noting that, as early as the beginning of June, 2010, according to a blog written by the Fairfax town manager, PG&E had not yet begun SmartMeter installation within the town, and by July 13, residents had only just begun to receive information letters from the utility noting their meters would be installed within the next few weeks. So, the town-imposed moratorium has effectively stopped PG&E in its tracks within Fairfax, some say for as long as a year.)
For its part, the California Public Utilities Commission has no such moratorium in place while it undertakes its study of PG&E's SmartMeters accuracy, according to Terrie Prosper, the CPUC's news and public information office director. "The CPUC has not put a moratorium on the installation of SmartMeters, so they are still scheduled to be installed based on PG&E's schedule," Prosper told me.
There have been some questions raised about the legal ability of the Fairfax town council to pass its ordinance banning, even temporarily, PG&E's SmartMeters. Decisions about utility equipment fall under the jurisdiction of the CPUC, while Fairfax's ordinance calls upon police powers and public utility franchise-granting powers granted by the California Constitution, as well as sections of the Public Utilities Code. Sorting through the legalese on all levels starts to resemble a game of "Rock Paper Scissors."
And in the end, if PG&E is able to repair its communications efforts with its utility customers in Fairfax, then sorting through the legalese may not end up being a necessary (or useful) exercise. As PG&E's Darbee told the CPUC's thought leadership series audience late last week:
"I think there are areas where we could have communicated better, we could have educated better. I think a mistake we made was that we thought we were rolling out infrastructure and technology, and we underestimated the interest that customers would take in a meter on the side of their house.
"So, I think we could have communicated that better, and we're looking now at how we can communicate more effectively, given where we are.
"As we go forward, I think the stakes are very great because once again, California is in the position to serve as the model for the rest of the United States when the United States has said it's not ready to move forward. And the challenge that we have is, are we going to be a good model, or a bad model, or an indifferent model?"
That challenge is about to be put to the test in Fairfax.
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