Local woman confronts PG&E over ‘smart meter’

Susan Beckman stands next to her analog meter at her home in Lompoc after she had a SmartMeter, installed against her wishes, removed. Beckman put a fence around the meter box to stop anyone from trying to change the meter again but drilled holes so PG&E is able to check the gas and electric.  

When Pacific Gas and Electric replaced Susan Beckman’s analog electric meter with a new, digital SmartMeter, the feisty Mesa Oaks resident took matters into her own hands.

She bought a new $200 analog meter, hired an electrician, removed the SmartMeter and installed the replacement herself. She called a sheriff’s deputy to confirm that the equipment was not damaged, Beckman said.

Then she and her husband built a “stockade” around the meter and cut holes in the wood to allow the power and gas meters to be read.

Beckman said that the California Public Utilities Commission, which directed PG&E and other independently owned utilities to transition from analog in 2006, notified her last week that her power will be cut off. The commission did not return a reporter’s phone call.

“There’s nothing wrong with my analog meter, so I called and asked them to put on the record I do not want a Smart Meter,” said Beckman, 64.

PG&E has proposed that the state allow customers to opt out of the SmartMeter program, and that proposal is being considered by the California Utilities Commission, said Kory Raftery, a spokesman for the utility company.

The Solvang City Council recently joined the Buellton City Council and the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors in supporting electrical customers’ right to refuse installation of SmartMeters at no cost to the customer.

The established opt-out program, which is being legally challenged, includes customer costs such as an upfront fee of $135 with a continuing monthly charge of $20 or a one-time fee of $270 with a monthly fee of $14.

PG&E says such charges are appropriate because it will need to keep sending a meter-reader to the home or business of every customer who does not have a SmartMeter.

The company, which serves between 9 million and 10 million customers in central and northern California, has a “delay list” for customers who don’t want a SmartMeter and prefer to wait to see if the state allows consumers to opt out.

Customers who have not received the new meters, and who don’t want one, can at least delay installation by calling PG&E at 877-743-7378.

But Beckman hasn’t made it onto the list.

Now, she says, she is embroiled in a battle with “Big Brother.”

“SmartMeters are being backed by the government. They are like a 24-hour surveillance of your home. They can tell how many computers you have, how many refrigerators ... it reads it all,” she said.

“It’s essentially a bugging device, but I don’t care about that. I have nothing to hide,” Beckman said. “We’re being bullied. They took away my choice. This is America. They are going to turn it off and that’s the way it’s going to be. Our freedom is slipping away.”

But the main reason she doesn’t want a SmartMeter, Beckman said, is she believes the unit emits dangerous radiation, and it is only a few feet from her husband’s den.

Robert Beckman, 89, had a large malignant tumor cut out of his face more than a year ago, his wife said.

“I’m not going to be microwaved and I’m not going to have my husband microwaved. I don’t even like teeth X-rays, I just don’t,” she said.

Beckman said that every time she fell asleep in her husband’s chair in the den, she began developing “an enormous rash” on her leg, feeling tired and having difficulty breathing. 

Raftery said he could not discuss Beckman’s specific case because she declined to sign a privacy waiver. “We take our customers’ privacy very seriously and we do respect their confidentiality,” he said. 

Although there is much public concern about the safety of SmartMeters, the meters are safe according to “many credible health studies,” Raftery said.

“The meter itself is transmitting a radio signal a fraction of the day — a second to a couple of seconds each hour — to a receiver,” he said. 

Beckman said she doesn’t want the SmartMeter and isn’t about to change her mind.

“I have no desire and I absolutely am not going to debate the issue,” she said. “I did the research and I am secure in the knowledge that I am protecting my husband.

“I just picture my husband’s cancer growing. Whether or not that is true, it doesn’t matter, it’s what I believe.”

Beckman would not disclose the name of the electrician who helped her replace the meter.

If her power is cut off, she said, she will use a generator until she can have solar panels installed.

“Can we afford it? No. Are we going to have to? Unfortunately,” she said. “This is Big Brother. Money talks and little people walk.”

The SmartMeter that Beckman dislikes so much is a high-tech device that is growing in popularity, with 76 million in use worldwide, Raftery said.

It gives customers better access to “real time usage” information, he said.

Instead of getting a monthly bill with accumulated usage information, customers can go online and see their “day by day, hour by hour” usage and make adjustments to save money, he said.

PG&E began replacing analog meters in 2007; as of the end of August, about 8.5 million of the SmartMeters had been installed, Raftery said. PG&E has about 10 million customers statewide.

Did Beckman do anything illegal?

“I don’t believe so. What I did was cut their lock. I did cut their lock,” she said. “I didn’t do anything harmful. They are not accusing me of doing anything like that.

“I have never been arrested, and this is America the last time I checked.”

Raftery said that tampering with utility equipment can be very dangerous, potentially causing burns, electrocution and large fires.

“Meter tampering violates state laws and regulations intended to protect people from unsafe activities,” he said.