PG&E official suspended for masqueradeBy Felicity Barringer
A Pacific Gas and Electric executive has been suspended with pay for using a fake name to join an online discussion organized by opponents of so-called smart meters, the utility company said on Tuesday.
In an e-mail last week, the executive, William Devereaux, wrote that he wanted "to see what I can do to help" opponents of the meters, which send electronic signals about energy consumption from homes to a central monitoring station. Mr. Devereaux is the senior director of PG&E's SmartMeter Program.
Although his message was signed "Ralph," his e-mail server betrayed him, identifying him by his real name. Sandi Maurer, the moderator of an opposition group, the California EMF Safety Network, immediately wrote back: "Hi, aren't you the head of the Smart Meter program at PG&E? We'd love your help! Can you help us obtain a Smart Meter moratorium ASAP?"
Jeff Smith, a spokesman for the utility company, said Mr. Devereaux had been suspended with pay pending the outcome of an investigation. "We do not at all condone this kind of behavior," he said. "It is not in keeping with PG&E's core values of honesty and transparency."
Mr. Smith said Mr. Devereaux would make no comment. But in interviews with The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Jose Mercury News, Mr. Devereaux confirmed that he had sent the e-mail message and said it was a "mistake." He said he had been monitoring online exchanges among smart-meter opponents for weeks "to better understand their concerns."
It was a public relations setback for PG&E, one of the California utilities that have been installing the digital meters in Northern and Central California. The goal is to create a more flexible electricity grid that can respond to fluctuations in demand across the region and the country.
Opponents have argued that the meters inflate electric bills, emit harmful electromagnetic radiation and reflect encroaching Big Brotherism.
Mr. Devereaux's ruse was quickly denounced by groups that oppose smart meters. "This is a devious act for someone trying to undermine legitimate concerns about the health impact of radio frequency exposure," said Joshua Hart, a leader of the group Stop Smart Meters.
Ellen Marks, 58, of Lafayette, Calif., a smart-meter opponent who blames cellphone use for her husband's brain cancer, said: "It's absolutely outrageous and despicable. We've been honest. We brought all our issues to the table. He didn't have to do this."
And it apparently was not the first time. On Sept. 18, someone using the same e-mail address submitted a comment to a discussion group called SmartWarriorMarin.
It criticized "the hypocrisy of your own arguments as you pick and chose yourself about the science regarding rf, make unsubstantiated claims about smart meter energy use, and make completely irresponsible allegations trying to link smart meters to the tragedy of San Bruno." (The abbreviation "rf" stands for radio frequency emissions. The San Bruno reference concerned the explosion of a PG&E gas line in San Bruno, Calif., that killed eight people in September and destroyed or damaged more than 50 homes; the blast has not been linked to the use of smart meters.)
The argument that radiation from devices like cellphones or smart meters can cause health problems has generally been greeted skeptically in scientific circles.
But in the Bay Area those concerns are taken seriously. This summer, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors tentatively approved a measure requiring cellphone makers to tell customers how much radiation their devices emit.
Homes in the Bay Area were among the first to get smart meters. The utility has installed 6.5 million of them over the last three years.
Early critics argued that the devices were inflating their bills. A contractor's report that the utility submitted to regulators two months ago concluded that the meters' readings were accurate.
Copyright ©2010 New York Times. Published 11/09/2010.