Administrative Law Judge Amy C. Yip-Kikugawa presided over a public hearing Friday where an angry crowd voiced its opposition to the installation of smart meters throughout Santa Barbara County. The hearing was part of a Southern California tour in which the judge will hear public comments, consider them, and eventually draft a proposal to potentially change the current opt-out fee structure. The proposal will then be voted on by the California Public Utilities Commission.
Yip-Kikugawa recently made a ruling that requires utility companies to provide an option for energy customers to opt out of smart meter installation. Currently, PG&E and Southern California Edison charge a onetime $75 fee and a $10 monthly fee for those who choose to keep their old energy meters. Dozens of customers and consumer advocates took to the podium Friday in a county administration building hearing room to voice their concern over the fees, the alleged health risks associated with smart meters, and a litany of other issues with the devices.
Former assemblymember Pedro Nava — a member of the Consumer Power Alliance advocacy group that has led the charge against smart meters — addressed the judge and the lively crowd. “It’s very clear that the overwhelming majority of people here believe that they should not have to pay anybody for something they don’t want,” he said. Nava also noted the original legislation that called for the new meters said they should be tested to make sure they were cost effective, had strong cyber security, and didn’t compromise customer safety. Nava contended that these issues had not been adequately reviewed before installation began.
“The opt-out fee is extortion,” said Barrett Sten. He added that if the companies wanted to save the cost of hiring employees to read traditional energy meters, they should pass the responsibility on to customers. “It’s very easy to read the meters,” he said. “I can do it myself.”
“The month-by-month fee is a huge slush fund of money that is beyond the operational costs of the company,” said Judith Fishkanian, who complained that the fees were not used to pay for any actual services.
First District County Supervisor Salud Carbajal reminded everyone that “The supervisors were on record asking for a no cost opt-out option.” Indeed, last year the supervisors voted unanimously for a free opt-out service. Carbajal’s words got the loudest applause of the afternoon.
Many speakers also addressed the supposed health risks associated with the radiation that the wireless smart meters emit. Susan Romanyk claimed that she experienced heart palpitations when a smart meter was installed at her home. When she opted out, the palpitations stopped, but now, she said, “I am paying for my own and my two neighbors’ opt-out fees because when [smart meters] were installed in my neighbors’ homes, the palpitations came back.” Several other speakers complained of heart palpitations and severe headaches that started when their new meters were installed.
As many speakers mentioned, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine has said that radio waves from smart meters can cause “significant harmful biological effects.” However, very little definitive research has been done on the subject, and it is difficult to isolate the effects of smart meter radiation when so many household electronics also emit radiation. For now, claims that smart meters have caused health problem are highly speculative. However, as Susan Stewart pointed out, “This could have all been avoided by using wired technology.”
Privacy issues were also raised at the hearing. The smart meter gives utility companies the ability to see exactly how much energy is being used by any home at any time. Many people agreed that this was an invasion of privacy.
Others raised the issue of cyber security. “Smart meters allow companies to turn off your power at any time,” one man said. “This could be the work of a rogue employee, a hacker, or a software error. … I want to see that capability taken away.”
Another woman complained that her appliances were being short-circuited and destroyed because of the smart meters. And that her computer, Internet, and printer no longer worked properly.
One man complained that utility company employees were harassing him, continually coming to his house to change his meter even though he had opted out. He asked Judge Yip-Kikugawa, “ In your legal opinion, if they come on my property again, can I shoot them?”
Overall, the hearing attracted a politically diverse group of people, all of whom were fully opposed to smart meters. They ranged from an environmentalist who asked, “Why are we polluting our air with this radiation?” to George Miller, head of the Ventura County Tea Party Action Alliance, who opined, “The so-called sustainability movement is really what is at fault for this problem.”