Smart Meters, Dumb Idea?

Why Marin activists oppose PG&E’s plan



The evening promised to be tense. PG&E, accepting an invitation from Fairfax Mayor Lew Tremaine, had come to town to clear the air about smart meters. The historically progressive burg had made no mystery of its position on the utility’s new wireless energy meters; in July, citing health, safety and privacy questions, it demanded a six-month moratorium. Many residents had already made up their minds: smart meters were not welcome in Fairfax. Period.

Two PG&E representatives, accompanied by big-gun reinforcements from the FCC, UCLA’s epidemiology department and the California Public Utilities Commission, walked into this environment on a warm September evening. Not surprisingly, they received a chilly welcome. “We are probably not going to be placated by what the FCC and the WHO [World Health Organization] have to say on the subject,” Tremaine said in his opening statement. “I hope we’re going to go deeper than that.”

“Smart” gas and electricity meters, so called because they use wireless signals to transmit up-to-the-minute usage data rather than requiring visits from meter readers, have been a source of controversy in California since PG&E began installing them in late 2009. Concerns about privacy and accuracy have created an upswell of opposition from Bakersfield to Santa Cruz, but perhaps none as forceful as that in Marin. Here, educated and experienced activists—many of whom have been fighting against cell phone towers and other sources of electromagnetic radiation for a decade or more—have made smart meters the latest cause célèbre. And their message, which hinges on both health and individual autonomy, is catching on. Cotati, Bolinas and Novato have joined Fairfax in opposing the meters, as have the Marin Association of Realtors and the county Board of Supervisors.

Yet PG&E doesn’t need permission from communities to install the meters. In fact, 100,000 of the 216,000 smart meters slated for Marin are already in place. Statewide, PG&E has installed nearly 8 million of 10 million meters planned and expects to wrap up the project by early 2012. Similar rollouts are happening nationwide, with PG&E leading the way.

The Face-off

Marin’s anti-smart-meter contingent was well represented at the Fairfax meeting. Newly minted activists sat alongside veterans of past battles against cell towers and pesticides. Mary Beth Brangan and James Heddle of the Bolinas organization Ecological Options Network were two of the higher profile. They recorded the proceedings with cameras for their website.

Katharina Sandizell-Smith also was there. She and her husband, Barry Smith, lead West Marin Citizens Against Smart Meters, whose 20 or so members have opposed the meters throughout Point Reyes Station and Inverness. David and Barbara Wientjes were there, too; they moved from San Anselmo to Woodacre five years ago to escape the electromagnetic radiation from wireless transmitters they say makes Barbara sick, and have since joined the fight against smart meters. 

These and some 60 others came to hear PG&E’s pitch, but an hour-long slide show on the meters’ role in the utility’s evolving commitment to clean energy, and an ensuing debate with the experts on the validity of existing scientific data, only stoked their fears. Smart meter program senior director William Devereaux, who would resign in November after being caught using a fake name to infiltrate an online opposition group, delivered a poorly received message about the potential energy savings offered by wireless meters. Likewise, attendees seemed unimpressed by the meters’ ability to provide real-time energy usage information to home owners and businesses.

Suddenly, a man in the audience accused PG&E of running a scam. Another shouted “ban smart meters” from the back of the room as Devereaux worked to wrap up his presentation. Someone raised a sign that read “No Toxic Trespass in Fairfax” and mounted it on the wall. Audience members queued anxiously down one side the room for their turn at the mike. “If you try to put these meters in Fairfax,” one announced with finality, “you’re going to have a big battle on your hands.”

Piggybacking on the outrage was a certain pride. The citizens of this notoriously liberal town and their compatriots throughout Marin—particularly West Marin—were challenging a multibillion-dollar company in the flesh. Passionate, defiant and occasionally self-righteous, they took satisfaction in introducing facts and citing studies, in posing difficult questions, and in taking a stand for caution in the face of what they see as increasing electromagnetic radiation threats. For a moment, stopping smart meters felt like the most important cause in the world.
In the end, though, the meeting closed without a hint of resolution. Citing federal and state mandates, PG&E and the CPUC declined to offer an opt-out option, making Fairfax’s moratorium a hollow formality and further incensing its supporters.

West Marin Mom: We Want Choice

“Something about it made it more serious,” Sandizell-Smith says a week later, recalling the meeting. “People are smart, and they’re not going to buy a bunch of bullshit.” The therapist and mother of two, ages 2 and 6, says she spends 30 to 40 hours a week organizing against smart meters. Since August, she’s walked every street and knocked on every door in Point Reyes Station. She’s spoken on local radio station KWMR and organized a photo shoot with 50 other smart meter opponents in front of a PG&E repeater for the Point Reyes Light newspaper. She’s met with county officials, attended rallies and picketed a cellular industry convention in San Francisco.

Sandizell-Smith’s core argument is that home owners deserve a say in whether or not they receive a smart meter. “We want a choice, basically,” she says. “I think it’s crazy to force somebody to have something.” She’s worried about the long-term health effects of the meters’ wireless transmissions and doesn’t want to take any chances with her children. “There’s no democracy in this, and that’s what’s concerning me.”

This isn’t Sandizell-Smith’s first battle. Two years ago, she participated in a successful campaign to stop the aerial spraying of pesticides intended to kill off the light-brown apple moth. A few years earlier, she fought the annexation of Point Reyes Station into a mosquito abatement district, which would have led to other spraying. With smart meters, she’s willing to go even further. Should PG&E attempt to install the meters in her neighborhood, she says, residents will band together to keep them out. “If they come and put their trucks in here, there’s gonna be trouble,” she says. “It’s gonna be a matter of civil disobedience.”

Woodacre Couple: Health First

David Wientjes opposes smart meters just as ardently, but his tactics are different. A longtime commercial real-estate businessman who works out of San Francisco’s Financial District for GVA Kidder Matthews, he believes that compiling reputable scientific studies on the health impacts of electromagnetic radiation is the only way to stop smart meters. It’s also the only way, he believes, to preserve the health of his wife, Barbara, who he says suffers acutely from a condition known as electrical sensitivity. The mainstream medical establishment generally dismisses the condition, whose pathology is not fully understood, but its effect on the Wientjeses’ lives has been profound.

In 1994, the couple moved from Mill Valley to a cottage in San Anselmo. They loved the home and its proximity to downtown shops. Four years later, however, Barbara, who has a history of chemical sensitivity, was besieged by a series of ailments: dizziness, disorientation, tinnitus, muscle spasms, body pain. The symptoms worsened over time, compounded by an inflammation in her cheeks, constant headaches and declining eyesight, until soon they were too much to bear.

“Our life was just in a mess,” Wientjes says. “I thought it was psychosomatic. I’m in business; I’m not an environmentalist; I’m not a health professional. I just want my life to be normal.” For two years, the couple struggled to pinpoint the source of Barbara’s illness. Doctors ran plenty of tests, but found nothing. Then, in 2000, Barbara Wientjes met Joan Ripple, founder of the Novato advocacy group Council on Wireless Technology Impacts, who told her about electrical sensitivity.

Using a costly spectrum analyzer wielded by a UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering they’d met through Ripple, they concluded the source of the problem was the electrical and radiofrequency fields blanketing their environment—AM radio signals, cell phone towers, eight emergency transmitters located atop a nearby police station, and the panoply of high-tech devices in their home: the TV, a satellite dish, several computers, a fax machine by their bed.

The couple got rid of nearly all their electronics and even shut down power to their house at night, but Barbara wasn’t getting better. One or two nights a week, they’d drive around Marin looking for a place to sleep that was free of electromagnetic radiation.

After three more years of suffering at home and another two spent roving from rental to rental in search of a location where Barbara’s health could improve, in 2006 they landed in Woodacre. “It was a perfect situation,” David says. “We had no cell phone reception, we were on a big piece of property, we were away from our neighbors…so we could control our environment.”

At first things were fine. With her new home as a nighttime refuge, Barbara was able to work around wireless equipment during the day as a pharmacist in Point Reyes Station. But then the modern world began to intrude. First, a neighbor added wireless Internet, and Barbara immediately felt the telltale vibrating sensations in her head and body. Then, PG&E announced its intentions to install a wireless meter. That was too much. “I can’t have a smart meter,” David says. “I’m not going to stand for having a wireless device put on my house, after all that I’ve been through.”

Wientjes now leads the Council on Wireless Technology Impacts as well as the Prove-It Initiative, an endeavor he co-launched to help fund scientific study of wireless radiation. “If we can prove that there are definite biological effects at the levels that cell phones use and wireless uses, there’s going to be a lot of backlash,” he says.

Bolinas Activists: Digital Democracy

If Wientjes and Sandizell-Smith represent separate arms of the Marin smart-meter resistance, self-described “full-time media activists” Mary Beth Brangan and James Heddle are the heart. Working under the name Ecological Options Network from one corner of a small art studio in Bolinas, across three decades they’ve tackled nuclear power in Palau, radioactive waste in Texas, voting machines in Ohio and other issues. The common thread, Heddle says, is democracy. “It’s always about the question of choice.” Smart meters are another example of “foisting technologies by technocratic decree with no democratic input whatsoever,” he says. “It’s outrageous.” To get their point across, Brangan and Heddle produce films: 18 complete documentaries so far, plus another 60 shorter clips for the web. In addition to documenting the anti-smart-meter movement, they actively participate in it. Brangan frequently attends public meetings to deliver slide shows on the dangers of electromagnetic radiation. With a bright demeanor and a youthful energy that belies her 63 years, she supports anti-smart-meter activists in Marin and beyond, staying abreast of the latest information, distributing it to a wide network of contacts, fostering collaboration and circling back to record the results. This self-perpetuating cycle keeps her at the center of the action.

“You have to understand that the body is biochemical-electrical,” she says. “Cells operate through a very complex way of assessing the environment through positive and negative charges … but then you get all these man-made sources coming in, [with no thought] about their compatibility with biological systems at all. No one was thinking about that.”

Like Sandizell-Smith and the Wientjeses, Brangan, who says she’s mildly electrical-sensitive, came to West Marin seeking sanctuary from urban environments. Now, living by the beach in Bolinas, she’s careful to keep wireless and electronic pollution out, a fact I was reminded of when I went to meet her and Heddle. The new smart phone in my pocket, after all, had come with a worrisome disclaimer: “Do NOT use the device in a manner such that is in direct contact with the body. Such use will likely exceed the FCC radio frequency safety exposure limits.”

Those cautionary words are no small consolation for Brangan and her cohorts. Not only did the CPUC in late October recommend a formal investigation into the health effects of smart meters, but if cell-phone manufacturers can disclose radiation risks in fine print, they reason, it must be only a matter of time before the same information can be used to defeat the wireless meters that already adorn millions of homes throughout California.

Add your comment:

Things to do in Marin

Summer Calendar: July

Our list of summer events and happenings throughout the month.

Shop Farmers' Markets

Where to find the freshest produce for your next meal.

Head to the Beach

Cool off this summer with our comprehensive list of great beach locations.

Go for a Hike

Your next adventure awaits within the trails of Marin County.