By Tiobe Barron
On Tuesday, Ojai became the first city serviced by Southern California Edison to pass a moratorium on the installation of smart meters. All other communities with similar bans have been Pacific Gas & Electric customers, which serves northern and central California. Ojai City Council, minus absent Councilwoman Sue Horgan, voted unanimously in favor of the urgent ordinance, which does not require a second reading and goes into effect immediately. If SCE continues to install the devices in a blanket manner, without the explicit expressed desire of a given Ojai property owner, such instances may be interpreted under the moratorium as a misdemeanor.
Southern California Edison began deploying the wireless meters in Ojai in April of this year, installing them on homes and businesses across the valley in place of the old, analog meters. Smart meters allow two-way data communication about electricity usage, that, in theory, will encourage more efficient energy use and discourage use during peak hours. In 2008, the California Public Utilities Commission granted PG&E and SCE permission to begin blanket installation of smart meters in an effort to conserve electricity in a state that has suffered from energy crises in the past.
Controversy swiftly followed the wireless meters into Ojai, however, as community members attended City Council meetings in great numbers to express concern over possible adverse health effects from radiation emitted by the devices, possible privacy issues for devices that track usage of all home appliances and communicate that information wirelessly, and a lack of an “opt-out” program established by the CPUC prior to the mass deployment of smart meters.
“The issue of smart meters obviously has been a hot topic in this community for the last several months,” said city attorney Joseph Fletcher. “While the means of communication could be wired or fiber-optic, what has been used in this state almost exclusively so far has been radio frequency transmitters. And that’s really the issue that has come back time and again about smart meters: The health risk concern about the risk of radio frequency transmissions from and to these pieces of equipment that are intended to be basically on every building in California within the next year.”
According to the website of the Federal Communications Commission, the governmental body which regulates most wireless communication devices, the FCC states that it adopted the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement’s recommended maximum exposure limits back in 1996. There is also a study titled “Questions and Answers About Biological Effects and Potential Hazards of Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields,” authored by Robert Cleveland Jr. and Jerry Ulcek in 1999. In it, the authors acknowledge that there are both thermal and non-thermal effects of radio frequency, but the FCC will only address the thermal (temperature-based) tissue damage-causing effects, and that further research is needed in the area of non-thermal effects. The study states that other scientific labs at the time had reported biological effects in animals and animal tissue exposed to “relatively low levels of RF radiation,” and those effects included “changes in the immune system, neurological effects, and effects on DNA.” Perhaps the most pertinent quote from this study frequently cited as a reference point for safe levels of radio frequency is this: “The FCC authorizes and licenses devices, transmitters and facilities that generate RF and microwave radiation. It has jurisdiction over all transmitting services in the U.S. except those specifically operated by the Federal Government. However, the FCC’s primary jurisdiction does not lie in the health and safety area, and it must rely on other agencies and organizations for guidance in these matters.”
The FCC standards for radio frequency in the general public limit the power density of any given device to less than 1 milliwatt per centimeter squared, for a frequency between 300 to 1500 megahertz. According the Electric Power Research Institute, the frequency range of the smart meter is between 900 to 2,400 megahertz, and the power density is at a fraction of the FCC standard. EPRI compares smart meters radio frequency emissions to those of a microwave in use, or a cell phone during a call, and finds them to be considerably less.
“If you read the early publications and information from the manufacturers and the current information that is available about the intended operation of smart meters, they appear to be intended to operate at the most for a few minutes a day. At a few minutes a day, assuming that a person isn’t literally putting their face right in front of the emitter, the level of radio frequency radiation is very low. The problem is, there are no PUC standards or federal standards for how long these will operate,” said city attorney Fletcher at Tuesday’s meeting. “There’s no way that we can then determine that a homeowner can find out, without buying testing equipment, how often their meter is in fact putting out a signal.”
“I want to suggest that you apply the same principle to smart meters as you do to secondhand smoke,” said Ojai resident Joseph Gilbert. “It’s like invisible, carcinogenic emanations that shouldn’t be allowed in public.”
Norma Lamb, who resides outside of Ojai, stated that she was present at the meeting to show support to council, and she would “walk a mile” to help them pass the ordinance. P. Lynne Middleton is a resident of Ojai, and lives adjacent to an apartment building with five smart meters installed. She has convinced two of the residents to opt-out by offering to pay the initial $75 fee for them, and is willing to do that for all five units to have the analog meters back.
Others suggested a more aggressive approach. “In my overseas experience in fighting against corporations that bully small governments, there’s only one fundamental language in the end that they will understand, and that is to hurt them financially,” said Ojai resident Clayton McLaughlin. “I want to plant the idea to the council and to everybody here that in the future we should maybe possibly consider a class-action lawsuit. Bare teeth, bare steel of our own!”
Jack Smart, an Ojai resident, queried whether there might be any benefit to speaking to the law firm of Erin Brokovich repute, or perhaps council felt they already were on top of matters.
“I’m certain everyone understands this, but this is a state issue. Just because the city adopts the moratorium doesn’t mean you can stop fighting,” insisted Councilwoman Carlon Strobel. “This is just the beginning. This idea is based on a smart grid, which will probably grow, and as it does, so will the RF.”
“What really irks me are the (opt-out) fees. How dare they?” said Councilwoman Carol Smith. “And the only way to reverse this is to go to the PUC? It’s outrageous.”
“I’ve got quite a few things to say about this,” began Mayor Pro Tem Paul Blatz. “Ojai is an extremely unique community. And I can’t tell you how proud I am to be part of a community where an outcry like this, over an issue such as smart meters, this community has got together and brought this issue to us É The apathy is not there, as it is in so many other places.” Blatz continued to say that as a lawyer, he has frequently seen large corporations trying to force consumers and cities to do things principally in the name of higher profit, but as a council member, he felt even more duty-bound to protect the health and safety of his constituents.
Mayor Betsy Clapp quoted another, perhaps slightly more famous lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, who said, “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me, and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow. And the monied power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the republic is destroyed.
“I think a lot of what we’re facing right now in this country is the division between the ‘common man,’ so to speak, and corporations and corporate power, and the undue powers they now have over us as citizens and our individual rights to do what we want within our own homes,” summarized Mayor Clapp.
Representatives from Southern California Edison declined the opportunity to answer specific questions, instead choosing to issue the following general statement: “Southern California Edison continues to work with the city of Ojai, as we do all cities we serve, to proactively address any issues the city may have regarding smart meters. The company fully supports customer choice and recently implemented an opt-out program. SCE customers who want to receive the benefits of a smart meter, including programs and services such as Budget Assistant and Save Power Days, can continue to do so while customers who do not want a smart meter can forgo receiving one. If customers want to opt out of receiving a smart meter, they can call (800) 810-2369.”