SAN FRANCISCO — Pacific Gas & Electric Co. can start charging its customers fees of up to $10 per month if they don't want to have wireless "smart meters" installed in their homes, according to a decision Wednesday by California regulators.
Four members of the California Public Utilities Commission approved a proposal that allows PG&E to charge residential customers an initial fee of $75, plus $10 each month, to opt out of the company's highly contested $2.2 billion SmartMeter program.
Critics contend SmartMeters, which electronically monitor a home's electricity and gas usage, emit harmful levels of radiation. PG&E maintains that the meters are safe and will bring down the utility's meter reading costs.
Dozens of opponents and advocacy groups from Fairfax to San Luis Obispo testified at the commission's meeting in its downtown San Francisco headquarters. After the vote, they erupted into a chorus of chants of "We say no fee, charge the utility" before being led out of the hall by law enforcement officers.
"We are allowing an opt-out option. We're not taking a step backwards," said CPUC President Michael Peevey, who drafted the proposal. "We want to empower customers, and we think this a major step to do so."
Under the new plan, PG&E can charge its low-income customers an initial fee of $10, plus an extra $5 each month to avoid installation of the wireless devices. Commissioners say they plan to revisit the fees over time to reassess whether ratepayers are paying an appropriate portion of the cost and to consider what opt-out fees could be charged for apartment buildings.
PG&E began installing the digital meters in 2006, and in the last year about 90,000 of the utility's approximately 5 million customers have asked to be put on a delayed installation schedule. PG&E forecasts about 150,000 will opt out overall, said Senior Vice President Helen Burt.
"We're accepting requests immediately because we understand our customers' desire to choose the meters at their homes," Burt said. "We need and want to respect those with concerns."
A variety of utilities across the country have torn out analog meters and adopted the new technology in recent years, and some got federal financial support through stimulus grants aimed at building a modern, resilient electrical grid.
Some California customers have gone so far as to block installation trucks or remove the devices from their homes. Critics say the meters emit radio-frequency microwave radiation similar to a cellphone that is harmful to people's health.
PG&E cites a study showing the radio frequency falls well below the federal threshold.
Sudi Scull said she developed painful headaches and ringing in her ears after PG&E installed a SmartMeter on her house in San Francisco's Bernal Heights neighborhood. The utility ultimately gave back her analog meter, but she said the pain returned when SmartMeters were installed on her neighbors' homes.
"My neighbors can ill-afford opt out fees so I can afford to live in my house," Scull testified. "Let PG&E executives and shareholders incur the costs of an opt-out program."
Follow Garance Burke at http://www.twitter.com/garanceburke