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PG&E offers opt-out for smart meters at a cost

California utility responds to critics of smart meters by offering an option to turn off the radio. But because of higher costs to read meters, it will charge consumers up to $20 a month to opt out.

Pacific Gas & Electric will offer customers an option to turn off the radio on its smart meters, an effort to address health concerns about the two-way utility meters.

The opt-out option, announced yesterday, will come at a cost because PG&E will no longer to be able to remotely read meters. In a filing, PG&E proposed that customers pay $270 up front and a $14 monthly charge--or $135 up front and a $20 monthly charge, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

A smart meter from Pacific Gas & Electric. PG&E

PG&E's smart-meter program has drawn national attention first because customers complained of higher bills after smart meters were installed, although no technical problems were found. Then the smart meters, which have a radio to send data to the utility, has been challenged over some customers' health concerns.

In March, California regulators told PG&E to offer customers an option to turn off the radios in the smart meters for a "reasonable cost." PG&E said yesterday that disabling the smart meters will add substantial costs to its operations, Bloomberg reported, including the cost of turning off the radio, manually reading the meters every month, modifying IT systems, and providing information to customers through call centers.

"The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence assures us that the low-level radio frequency signals from our SmartMeters are safe--in fact, even safer than many household products, including cell phones and microwave ovens. But we know some customers nevertheless have concerns about the meters and we take those concerns seriously," Greg Kiraly, PG&E's vice president of SmartMeter operations, said yesterday in a statement.

PG&E has installed more than 8 million smart meters in California. The meters use the radio intermittently to transmit information back to PG&E on electricity usage and identify outages in the electricity grid. Consumers can get detailed and up-to-date information on usage as well.

Utility-funded research company Electric Power Research Institute last month released the results on radio frequency emissions from smart meters, part of a series of tests it plans to do. In its first test, it found that emissions of commercial smart meters fall well below the federal safety threshold.

Correction at 9 a.m. PT: The proposed fees for an opt-out have been fixed.