Thursday, March 31, 2011

Am I Glowing Yet?

Well, PG&E sure screwed the pooch with their efforts to install their new SmartMeters all over the state. Of course, these are the same folks whose gas lines blew a big hole in San Bruno, so maybe bungles are par for the course. But their efforts to modernize electric service have resulted in outcries followed by back-pedaling and the spending of vast sums of money to go back to ‘splain things better and soothe all the Calamities & Alarums stirred up by fears that we’ll all be irradiated in our beds by a barrage of microwaves from our SmartMeters. Even our County got into play when the Board of Supervisors voted to write a letter to the PUC urging that PG&E give homeowners an option of keeping their old meters if they didn’t want the new ones.

Which PG&E decided to do. . . . for a price: $20 bucks more a month to opt out.

Awww, Gawwwd. It was a textbook case of Bad Ad Campaign 101.

Here’s what you do: First, when you roll out a new product, you need to create a positive buzz, make the product not only cool, but a must have product. Then you reduce the initial creepiness factor (those radio-frequency micro-burst emissions) to a boring familiarity (“It operates like your kid’s cell phone if your kids only talked 45 seconds a day!”). Then you dangle carrots, (“We’re so sure you’ll save money by using your SmartMeter to track and manage your energy use, we’re going to give you 25% off your first year’s electric bill just to try it!”). Then toss in a positive media-blitz campaign showing happy up-to-date cool folks saving pots of money because they (not PG&E) are now in control of their energy use.

Here’s what you do NOT do: Pound on the door, tell the owner you’re here to change out their meters, then clump through the house and hammer it in place and if they say, “Wait, wait, I don’t want that thing because I’m afraid it’ll irradiate me and give me and my kids cancer,” you say, “Look, lady, the questions about the potential health effects associated with RF exposure will take time to resolve, but the FCC wouldn’t do anything to put you in jeopardy. Trust us. We’re PG&E. We blew up San Bruno. So, ya got no say here. Yer gonna get this here meter or ya can git no electricity at all. Or, if ya want I should leave the old one, it’ll cost ya twenny-bucks a month more to start. And you just know we’ll keep jacking that fee up since we don’t want to deal with you old fuddy-duddy Luddites with your analog TVs and land-line phones. So, hurry up, whaddaya want I should do, I’m running late here.”

No, not how you roll out a new product. Especially at a time when the country is already rattled and in full, scared paranoid mode. And at a time when new research is indicating that medical/health-issues from cell phone use, for example, may prove to be more troubling than we were lead to believe. And here we’re adding yet another layer of RFs to our environment only this time, the layer isn’t one of our choosing -- like buying a new flat screen TV or getting another cell phone or installing WiFi in our homes would be. This time, it’s Big Brother telling us we have no choice, no control. That we’re going to be forced to be stuck with scary RF-emitting meters that will irradiate us inside the only place left we feel safe -- inside our homes, while we sleep?

All of which brought PG&E to the SLOTown library last night for another “workshop” with the nice PG&E folks, tables of brochures, the meters themselves, piles of “scientific argle-bargle printouts with charts and formulas proving that radio frequencies used by the SmartMeters are safe, so far as we know.

And, considering the recent brouhaha about the meters, I figured hundreds of people would be there, TV cameras in tow, all making ugly crowd noises. But here’s who showed up: PG&E representatives (who brought pizza and cookies) and maybe 4-5 people. That’s it.

So, where were the outraged folks who besieged the BOS, pleading in a matter of life or death? Where was the rest of the public? Was I to presume that they had all the information they needed about the Smart Meters? (Including the huge pile of dense “scientific” hand-outs and FCC reports on RFs, all of which are wonderfully incomprehensible to the average reader.)

Or is it possible that 99.9% of the public didn’t know and didn’t care. Smart Meter? Sure. Whatever.

Meantime, the installations will continue, with The Gas Company apparently planning on installing their SmartMeters as well. (Here in Los Osos, since we’re in severe overdraft, it would be wonderful to install SmartMeters on our water meters since in the CSD water area, we only get a bill every two months: one little undetected leak and you can not only waste a vast amount of water in two months, you’ll also get hit with a HUGE bill. A SmartMeter would allow you to check often to make sure your water use isn’t getting goofy.)

And as for people seriously concerned with the RFs on the meters, I hope none of those folks own and use a cell phone. According to an RF Q&A, the SmartMeters will communicate in micro bursts lasting from two to 20 milliseconds, with a total of 45 seconds a day. “The RF from an electric SmartMeter is roughly one one-thousandth of that of a typical cell phone. In fact, you’d have to have one of our meters on you home or business for more than 1,000 years to get as much exposure to radio waves as a typical cell phone user gets in just one month.” (Not to mention the FCC “standard for RF-exposure considers not just RF-signal strength and the duration of the signal, but also distance, one needs to consider that any distance between the SmartMeter and the person, and the intervening presence of the house-wall and the back [metal] plate of the meter, will significantly reduce the strength of the RF-signal.”)

So, if anyone is concerned about RFs and SmartMeters, hopefully, they’ll use land line phones to communicate their concerns to the PUC.

And stay out of a Wi-Fi Starbucks.

Addendum: New Times had a news update on the SmartMeters and noted the new proposal for folks who object to the devices:  ". . . opt-out customers not enrolled in low-income programs will face one of two fee schedules:  an up-front fee of $135 with a fixed monthly chrge of $20, or a one-time fee of $270 and a monthly charge of $14.  Low-income assistance program-enrolled customers will receive a 20 percent discount."  Which means if you're so poor you need help paying your electric bill, you'll only be dinged $108 or $216 and  $16 or $11 a month.

Continues New Times, "Basically, this is extortion," said Sandi Maurer, president and founder of the EMF Safety Network, who has led the campaign against SmartMeter installations. "For PG&E to say that if you don't want this you will have to pay hundreds dollars, that discriminates against the poor."

The day I posted this piece, I opened my PG&E bill and discovered that there was "no payment due" because somebody (not I) sent PG&E a $252.83 payment. I'll call them later, but if this kind of goof has happened with dumb meters and regular billing, I'd advise PG&E customers to hang onto your bills and check numbers for the last few years and well after the SmartMeters are installed since I'm betting there'll be a few bumpy rides before the bugs get shaken out.  My sister was SmartMetered and got a huge electric bill.  Luckily she had a whole year's worth of receipts and had a nice little chat with the accounting department and things are back to normal again.  You have been cautioned.


Alon Perlman said...

The powder in the o'l Canon is dry and the canon aimed right at the main mast and the windage and drop accounted for.
In other words. "well wrote!"

Sewertoons said...

Great article Ann - thanks for the read.

We DID discuss water smart meters at the LOCSD Utilities Committee meeting and learned that the CSD is far too broke to consider it - much to the relief of one committee member and the dismay of the rest of us. I don't know if you catch any of the CSD meetings on Channel 20 or take out the DVDs, but one meeting had a long discussion on one customer's dilemma. He had around a $6,000 water bill due to an undetected break in the water line, no negligence on his part (dry season, the water just went down, down, down). Board policy changed to address unfortunate accidents like this and to give customers a break. Yes, it would be nice to save water with a smart meter.

Churadogs said...

Dang! about the water smart meters for Los Osos. Wouldn't you think such an installation would be up-front financed by some innovative water-saving grant? Re the poor guy you mention, I've had a similar thing happen once a few years ago--absolutely silent toilet leak, the tank level just barely topping the overflow pipe so the water slowly drained out without triggering the tank-refill, which would have alerted me something was wrong. Sooooo Not good. I'm absolutely paranoid about checking that level now. Also had a drip-line break that went unnoticed until I got the bill. The issue of course isn't the money, though that's bad enough, but the lost water.

Sewertoons said...

Well, even if the CSD somehow found the money, the bigger cost would probably be the PR needed to convince Los Osians that smart meters weren't harmful. The crowd that protested cell towers is basically the same crowd protesting smart meters and they are LOUD.

Sewertoons said...

Off the CSD website, here is the latest on the the water leak stuff: