Two weeks ago, Monterey resident Nina Beety was frustrated enough that she spent several thousands dollars to take out an ad in her local paper to raise an issue she thought not enough people knew about: Pacific Gas & Electric's SmartMeters. The responses were swift.

"My phone just went nuts," Beety said. "When I was on a call with one person, my phone was beeping with other people calling through." Beety is on the front lines of a grassroots resistance that found traction in Santa Cruz County, and could stall the Northern California rollout of a major national public policy initiative: A more advanced power grid that allows customers to reduce energy demands.

But the implication of Beety's and other activists arguments is even more profound: that our entire wired culture is dangerous to your health. If wifi-emitting SmartMeters are an issue, so are cell phones, coffeehouse wireless networks, baby monitors and even favorite local radio stations.

"I see it as a scandal," Beety said.

But is it?

There is a vast trove of research about wireless devices and their effects on human health, and the debate is rife with accusations of shoddy science or the multibillion-dollar wireless industry tilting the scientific scales. But neither the Federal Communications Commission nor the World Health Organization have sounded alarms, and many experts say the concern is overblown or inconclusive.

"There's no evidence to suggest they cause any harm," PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno said.

California energy regulators, not local governments, have authority over SmartMeters. But that didn't stop the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors from voting to impose a moratorium here, where about 12 percent of homes have SmartMeters. Joining the county (and several Marin County locales), Watsonville and Capitola followed suit, with Monterey and Seaside to vote on bans this week.

While questions have been raised about privacy and the accuracy of the meters, the issue that touches nerves the most has to do with health. That makes the Central Coast ground zero in a political struggle that may or may not be based on a fiction - that wireless devices are harmful.

"There's a population in the coastal counties that's aware of issues of environmental health," said Scotts Valley resident Joshua Hart of the group StopSmartMeters! "It's raised people's hackles." Hart is convinced the meters pose a threat, ticking off analysis from surveys and studies. A skeptic of what he called "tinfoil-hat paranoia" at first, Hart is now an ardent PG&E critic, saying the company's story about the frequency and strength of SmartMeter wireless signals can't be trusted.

"It's like a gold rush to build out the wireless society, and there's a dark side to that," warned Hart, who added that PG&E could have done more to reduce energy use by sending customers clothespins, rather than installing SmartMeters.

While there is clear momentum behind the anti-SmartMeter forces, many local officials say their concerns aren't based on science: PG&E simply wasn't listening to its customers.

"It was really more a concern about process," said Santa Cruz County Supervisor Mark Stone. "People are concerned, and they're not getting a lot of answers." Many customers are rankled that PG&E won't let them opt out of a SmartMeter. However, that may change.

"We are evaluating that," PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said.

In his stimulus package, President Obama included more than $4 billion to modernize the nation's power grid. Though PG&E's SmartMeters aren't funded by the stimulus, many other smart meter projects across the country are, and the technology is a critical part of the upgrade.

The advantage, PG&E says, is that the meters are able to track electricity usage throughout the day. With that information, PG&E can offer customer discounts for shifting their electricity usage from pricey peak hours to less expensive hours, reducing peak demand.

Here's the catch: The meters send information remotely, over a wireless network. So like any other wireless device, they have to meet FCC guidelines, which are based on the levels at which tissues heat up, causing behavioral changes in their subjects.

Focus on so-called "thermal effect" is the crux of the scientific dispute. Whether there is a "non-thermal" effect - and whether it poses a danger to humans - is disputed, despite claims of senstivity to electromagnetic frequencies, or EMF, with symptoms including headaches and restlessness.

"You're going to find people on both sides of the issue," said Robert Cleveland Jr., an electromagnetic frequencies expert who worked on FCC standards during his two decades with the agency. "Even scientists." But Cleveland, who has done consulting work with PG&E in the past, said his review of the data shows there is no proof that electromagnetic frequencies sensitivity even exists. Anecdotal evidence is not sufficient to revise scientific standards, he said.

"We're not saying these people don't have symptoms, but there's no evidence it's related to electromagnetic frequencies," Cleveland said.

"So far, nothing's turning up, that I know of, to say that these limits ought to be changed," he said.

Kathleen Shaffer is also skeptical. The Sebastopol City Councilmember has seen the city take two votes on whether to ban SmartMeters. Both failed, but the last one, in February, was close: 3-2.

Shaffer said the council was concerned PG&E could sue over a ban. But she also said she's more concerned about smoke-free parks than electromagnetic frequency-free zones, saying there's no definitive science showing the exposure is harmful.

"What I told the group is, once the (U.S.) solicitor general declares there's a danger from EMF, I can support you," Shaffer said.

As more local governments move toward symbolic votes against SmartMeters, the Sepastapol votes remain outliers. Even Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-Marin, has introduced a bill allowing customers to refuse a SmartMeter (though Huffman is comfortable with the one installed at his home).

The phenomenon seems to be native to Northern California. While a Texas utility recently installed their millionth meter, customer questions there have focused on energy bills, not health.

"We have run into very little resistance from customers," said Alicia Dixon, a spokeswoman for Houston-based CenterPoint Energy.

But anti-wireless activists think the science is catching up to them. They point to a recent report from Sage Associates, which specializes in the design of low-electromagnetic frequency environments, saying SmartMeter signals can be much higher than advertised, even exceeding FCC limits. And they point to a National Institutes of Health study last week showing cell phones stimulate brain activity - a potentially important showing of non-thermal effects, though the author of the study cautioned against drawing any conclusions.

More importantly, they seem to be making converts at every turn.

One of those is Shanna Casey, owner of Asana, a tea house in downtown Santa Cruz. Casey recently removed the wireless network in her business, replacing it with hard-wired Ethernet ports. She said she feels better; less agitated and more relaxed.

"My housemates at home use wireless at home, and I'm wondering if it's time to approach them," Casey said




Smart Water Meter Market Expected to Skyrocket to $4.2 Billion

by Jaymi Heimbuch, San Francisco, California on 02.28.11 Good news for those worried about water conservation efforts in the US -- the use of smart water meters is expected to jolt upwards within the next few years. Smart water meters, like smart ... 


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W.E.E.P. – The Canadian initiative to stop Wireless Electrical and Electromagnetic Pollution