As expected, on Thursday, April 19, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a smart meter opt-out provision for customers of both Southern California Edison, which services Idyllwild, as well as for customers of the San Diego Gas & Electric Company. The approval mirrors one given earlier to Pacific Gas & Electric and provides an avenue for customers desiring to have an existing smart meter removed and have it replaced by an analog meter.

SCE, at CPUC’s request, had considered opt-out alternatives for its customers who currently have smart meters as well as ones that have not yet received them. But in its March 2012 filing with the CPUC, SCE suggested only one alternative was economically feasible for the company — to utilize a “noncommunicating radio-off meter option” for customers who already have SCE-installed smart meters, by turning off the radio wave transmission feature and mandating a monthly meter read at the site by an employee of SCE. This proposal by SCE would have provided no option for those who either wanted to retain their existing analog meters or to have smart meters removed and an analog meter reinstalled. SCE had justified its one-approach-only proposal using CPUC wording that any opt-out proposal submitted should be “technically feasible, offered at reasonable cost to customers, and not impede the state’s goals to deploy a Smart Grid.”

The CPUC did not buy SCE’s argument and instead directed it, as it had previously directed PG&E, to provide both options. Under the initial program approved by the commission, SCE customers who want to be rid of their smart meters will pay a fee of $75 for the removal, and a monthly surcharge of $10. Lower income customers will pay $10 to have the meters removed and a monthly surcharge of $5. Customers must qualify and be registered as part of the California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) program. CPUC stated that this initial directive would be reviewed once actual costs of compliance (removing smart meters and reinstalling analog meters) are submitted by the two affected utilities.

Ken Devore, director of SCE’s SmartConnect program, stated that when actual compliance costs are submitted by SCE and reviewed by the CPUC, that those costs would likely be incorporated into customer bills. Devore said that the projected cost to install the grid, not considering the opt-out compliance costs, is an estimated $1.6 billion that is already showing up as a 1.6 percent increase in customer electrical rates, but is not indicated as a separate line item on customers bills. Devore said the current 1.6 percent increase will expire at the end of 2012 and that costs for opt out compliance as well as additional costs for grid installation and maintenance will begin to appear on customer bills in 2013 after CPUC has reviewed those costs and granted a consequent rate increase. But, nodding to the reality of the CPUC decision, Devore said, “We absolutely support our customers having a choice.”

Smart meter opponents, concerned over both privacy and radiation exposure allegedly caused by proximity to smart meters, say this opt out approval is a first step but that they would like to see a no-cost opt-out plan so that all who have genuine concerns about the device can afford to have them removed.

SCE’s opt out program is supposed to be operable by Wednesday, May 9. Customers who want to have their smart meters replaced with an analog meter can call (800) 810-2369.