Will PG&E's SmartMeters smoke out pot growers?

The Pacific Gas and Electric Company is many things to many people. It is the Bay Area's electricity provider; it is bogeyman, bane, and raison d'être for some in the local press; and it is an active player in the political process. But lately, some marijuana advocates are adding “Big Brother” to that list. They fear that the utility giant's new high-tech usage meters will tip off police to the existence of marijuana growhouses.

The SmartMeters feature digital displays, rather than the spinning-usage wheels seen on older electromagnetic models. They track how much energy is used and when, and transmit that data directly to PG&E. This eliminates the need for paid meter readers, since the utility can immediately access customers' usage records remotely and, theoretically, find out whether they are consuming, say, exactly 2,000 watts for exactly 12 hours a day.

That's a problem, because usage patterns like that are telltale signs of indoor marijuana grow operations, which will often run air or water filtration systems round the clock, but leave grow lights turned on for half the day to simulate the sun, according to the Silicon Valley Americans for Safe Access, a cannabis users' advocacy group.

What's to stop PG&E from sharing this sensitive information with law enforcement? SmartMeters “pose a direct privacy threat to patients who … grow their own medicine,” says Lauren Vasquez, Silicon Valley ASA's interim director. “The power company may report suspected pot growers to police, or the police may demand that PG&E turn over customer records.”

PG&E isn't helping assuage pot growers' fears. “Customer information is very important to PG&E, and PG&E takes extensive steps to ensure customers' information is protected,” company spokesman Jeff Smith said before hanging up. Erika Taylor Montgomery, spokeswoman for Silicon Valley ASA, says she received a flat “no comment” before she was hung up on, too.”That tells me they're aware of growers' concerns and are clearly unwilling to discuss it,” she says.

PG&E customers in Concord, Walnut Creek, and the South Bay have the new meters now, and all customers are slated to get them by 2012. Police typically need nothing more than an anonymous complaint or reports of a pot aroma to acquire suspected growers' utility records through a search warrant.

But that seems unlikely, according to Kevin Reed, operator of the Green Cross, an S.F. medicinal delivery service. “PG&E loves money, and they love people who pay their bills,” says Reed, who notes that an estimated 10 to 12 plants nurtured on the grid means another $200 in PG&E's coffers. “Maliciously turning over information? I have never heard of that happening.”

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