Anti-SmartMeter groups oppose settlement with utility commission

02/21/2013

A coalition of activist groups across the region staunchly opposed to the installation of wireless utility meters are not softening calls for harsher penalties against multiple Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) employees and other utility officials implicated in an ongoing investigation into privacy violations.

The groups last week filed a formal notice of opposition with an administrative law judge expected in the coming weeks to rule on a settlement that would bring an end to an investigation into PG&E. The utility has remained under investigation by a division of the state’s regulatory Public Utilities Commission since late 2010, after one of its executives resigned amid evidence he breached company privacy policies by using a false identity to join online advocacy groups opposing its SmartMeter program.

The settlement, including a $390,000 fine imposed on the utility, is seen by Joshua Hart, director of Stop Smart Meters!, one of the main opposition groups, merely as a “slap on the wrist.”  

“We want to see, ultimately, PG&E held accountable,” he said, claiming the commission is “sweeping under the rug some very suspect behavior.” His group is among a handful that filed a civil lawsuit against PG&E in San Francisco Superior Court in November.

Company spokesman Paul Moreno and others at the utility maintain privacy violations were isolated to William Devereaux, a former senior director of the utility’s SmartMeter Program. Mr. Devereaux resigned two years ago after admitting he used an alias, Ralph, to intercept emails and other correspondence between online groups organizing protests against the program.  

An internal investigation found at least four other employees, including two executives, visited such Web sites, though they denied using a false identity to gain access. Among them was the head of the planning and policy division at the commission, Marzia Zafar, whom the investigation found received emails from Mr. Devereaux.

He added that the investigation, based on interviews with 20 employees and contractors of the utility, found “no indication” employees knew Mr. Devereaux was violating company policy.

“We feel that it’s fair, in the best interest of all,” PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno said of the settlement between PG&E, the utility commission and consumer watchdog group Utility Reform Network.

SmartMeters, wireless devices used to monitor energy consumption, have proliferated across PG&E service areas in northern and central California, though hundreds of thousands of customers have opted out of replacing their analog meters. The company initially mandated the meters and later offered an opt-out program to residential customers for a fee.

Opposition to the device, which some health advocates maintain emits harmful amounts of radiation, is traced by some to West Marin.

Two mothers were arrested in late 2010 after refusing to move out of the highway in Inverness Park while about two dozen residents blocked PG&E installation trucks in one of the first organized protests against the program.

The utility contends efforts to monitor opposition grew out of safety concerns. In a report filed last year to the utility commission, PG&E claimed some of its employees responsible for installing the devices were the targets of threats, some deadly, by opponents.

Mr. Hart dismissed those claims, asserting the utility sought to cast opponents as “insurgents.”

The findings of the investigations have led PG&E to establish tighter policies related to social media use, Mr. Moreno, the PG&E spokesman, said.

But Mr. Hart said the investigation has revealed “systemic” privacy violations among several employees he said were connected to emails Mr. Devereaux
circulated.

“These questions need to be answered,” he said.

If the settlement is upheld, he added, the opposition groups likely will seek an appeal to the Superior Court.

Whatever the outcome, the opposition has brought together “strange bedfellows” of activists, Mr. Hart said, including privacy and environmental advocates. He is encouraging critics to attend a commission meeting at the end of the month, when officials may discuss whether to approve the settlement.

“We hope folks in West Marin can make the trip down,” Mr. Hart said.