In today’s abundance of new gadgets, one in particular is causing controversy in Santa Cruz County and across the state. The “Smart Meter” is a wireless digital device appearing along the California coast and igniting heated discussions.
A Smart Meter is a wireless digital utility meter that measures the amount of electricity and gas used in a household or business. All buildings had analog meters before the switch to Smart Meters. These wireless devices send information to Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the sole energy provider in northern and central California.
With projected benefits like “better usage of renewable power” as well as “smart devices and smart homes,” the PG&E website states “the Smart Meter system lets you track your energy use anytime throughout the month, so you can make smart decisions and control your energy costs.”
PG&E began installing Smart Meters in 2006 when the California Public Utilities Commission approved the switch. The company plans to be finished with all installations in 2012.
Residents around the county and state are upset about these new energy tracking devices because they emit potentially dangerous electromagnetic frequencies during hourly updates to PG&E. The long-term effects of constant exposure to this level of radiation are unclear.
StopSmartMeters! is a movement that began as the “Scotts Valley Neighbors Against Smart Meters” in June 2010. The group advocates for ceasing installation of Smart Meters in Santa Cruz County by providing information on their website, holding weekly protests, and writing letters to the Santa Cruz City Council.
Josh Hart, a 1998 UC Santa Cruz graduate who holds a master’s degree in transportation planning, is the director of StopSmartMeters!. He is greatly concerned with the negative effects the meters may have on life in our community and on a global scale.
“Smart Meters are having impacts on humans, animals and plants,” Hart said. “It’s horrific. People are having symptoms of electrosensitivity — such as headaches, fatigue, depression, sleeplessness — but the long term could possibly even be tumors and cancer.”
Hart said radiation is creating health and environmental issues that are “actually pushing people out of their homes and neighborhoods. I know people that have had to leave their property because of Smart Meter radiation.”
Over the summer, UCSC lecturer and nuclear policy expert Daniel Hirsch, along with two college students, conducted a study on the potential health effects of Smart Meters. Hirsch’s research is in no way associated with the university. State legislators requested the independent science base study in an attempt to avoid bias in the data measurement or conclusions.
The results from testing were inconclusive regarding the radiation’s health effects. Hirsch’s research found Smart Meters emit significantly more radiation than the average cellphone.
“The cumulative whole body exposure from a Smart Meter at three feet appears to be approximately two orders of magnitude higher than that of a cellphone, rather than two orders of magnitude lower,” according to Hirsch’s study, indicating that the information given out by PG&E was incorrect.
In January 2011, Watsonville, Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley and Capitola voted against the installation of Smart Meters.
Though Santa Cruz did not pass an official ordinance, the council agreed that if people want to opt out of Smart Meters, they should be able to do so for free, instead of being charged a potential fee from PG&E.
Community members have asked the city to ban Smart Meters. Vice Mayor Don Lane said state law prevents any city ordinance from being effective.
“The city of Santa Cruz chose to not go through with an ordinance,” Lane said, “not because we didn’t have any sympathies, but because we knew it would just be a symbolic act.”
Tony Madrigal, a Santa Cruz councilmember since 2004, is a proponent of having alternatives to Smart Meters for city residents to choose from.
“I support the community members having an option about having Smart Meters,” Madrigal said. “I think our community functions best when people have options, when everyone is clearly educated on what the options are, especially in their own native language.”
Lane said he has “mixed feelings” about Smart Meters.
“I have concerns about the radiation issue,” Lane said, “but the concept of a statewide network can be really valuable in terms of energy efficiency and a possible reduction of our state’s carbon footprint. It’s really a challenging issue. There’s a reason the Public Utilities chose to do this. It’s not just PG&E versus the people.”
Even though 43 counties in California have voted against Smart Meters, PG&E continues installation.
The Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors voted in favor of Ordinance No. 5084, which prohibited the installation of Smart Meters in unincorporated areas of the county for one year beginning in January 2011.
“No Smart Meter may be installed in or on any home, apartment, condominium or business of any type within the unincorporated area of the County of Santa Cruz,” according to the policy, “and no equipment related to Smart Meters may be installed in, on, under, or above any public street or public right of way within the unincorporated area of the County of Santa Cruz.”
PG&E declined to be quoted for this story. The PG&E website has a specific section dedicated to Smart Meters, explaining what they are.
Hart believes PG&E should respect the Board of Supervisors’ decision to ban the Smart Meters.
“PG&E continues to install Smart Meters even though the county voted against them,” Hart said. “People do have rights and powers to say no.”
Santa Cruz county sheriff Phil Wowak has been criticized by some members of the community for not enforcing the county’s decision and allowing PG&E to continue installations. Hart believes it’s up to the community of Santa Cruz to rally together to protest Smart Meters.
“Sheriff Wowak refuses to enforce this law and is currently being recalled through a community effort,” Hart said. “There’s a signature gathering happening right now.”
Lane said the sheriff’s department cannot enforce the law because utilities in California are run by the California Public Utilities Commission, which approved Smart Meter installation for PG&E in 2006.
Hart said consumers should exercise their right to understand the risks associated with the controversial technology.
“People need to realize they have rights and the right to question.”