Coming Soon: PG&E’s Latest Plan to Calm Smart Meter Foes

Smart grid companies take note: the battle over smart meters in California isn’t going away any time soon and will likely get more complicated. It could even impact tech companies that have banked on the rollout of a massive amount of meters connected to wireless networks.

The president of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), Michael Peevey, said Thursday that he has asked Pacific Gas and Electric – the largest utility in the state – to come up with alternatives to wireless smart meters within two weeks.

The order came after months of intense protests by some PG&E customers over whether the radio frequency emitted from the meters makes people sick. Research has shown that RF emission from smart meters poses no known health risks and is in fact lower than what comes from cell phones and microwaves, but more studies on the long term effects have been called for.

PG&E also has faced criticism over the accuracy of the smart meters and went through a public relations nightmare to convince its customers and regulators that its meters were working fine. A state-ordered report concluded as much last fall.

What the utility is facing isn’t unique as similar issues have cropped up in other smart meter rollouts around the country. If offering alternatives to wireless meters is deemed a good solution, then other utilities and state regulators might follow suit to quell concerns.

The details of these alternative plans could affect tech developers who have counted on wireless meter deployment as part of their business plans. PG&E hasn’t said what its alternative offerings might be, but providing wired meters is the likely option. Or it could stop installing smart meters all together and allow customers to keep their analog meters, which can’t provide feedback on the energy use at a home or business.

Managing a network with different technologies poses some headaches for the utility. Moreover, allowing analog and digital meters to co-exist makes it difficult for tech companies to promote products whose primary selling point is to allow consumers better monitor and control their energy use and costs.

A variety of companies are peddling energy monitoring gadgets and software that would show electricity use throughout the day and point out energy uses that could be dialed back to save money. Some of these equipment developers are working with utilities as part of their smart meter deployment plans.

And, of course, any drop in wireless smart meter installations also could means changes to manufacturing plans and sales forecast for wireless meter makers and their component suppliers, such as General Electric, Landis+Gyr and Silver Spring Networks. But such impact is hard to gauge without knowing specific changes of plans from utilities. PG&E already has replaced nearly eight million of its roughly 10 million old meters with wireless ones, said Greg Snapper, a PG&E spokesman.