California’s big southern utilities, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, haven’t had as much trouble with anti-smart meter activists as has their northern neighbor Pacific Gas & Electric.

They’ve also got a different flavor of customer to deal with than PG&E’s Marin County types. In fact, for Southern California Edison, its smart meter opponents include several local Tea Party groups.

Now we’ll see what happens when smart meter opponents learn they’ll have to pay to stay smart-meter-free. The California Public Utility Commission ruled Thursday that SDG&E (PDF) and SCE (PDF) must offer customers an opt-out to smart meters -- but that they can charge up to $75 per person, plus $10 a month, for the privilege.

That’s essentially the same deal CPUC offered PG&E last month, in a ruling meant to stave off a growing customer backlash against the Northern California utility’s multi-million smart meter deployment. PG&E has agreed to leave old analog meters at the homes of such opt-out customers, but says it needs to charge extra for the costs of sending meter readers to those homes and other costs, adding up to an estimated $113.4 million over the next two years.

The ruling hasn’t pleased PG&E’s opponents, however. The most vocal critics charge that the radios inside the smart meters create a health risk for entire neighborhoods, despite data that shows the typical smart meter emits far less radiation than do cell phones and other devices permitted by law. Similar complaints have emerged in other states across the country.

While PG&E’s opponents are of a decidedly left-wing bent, it appears that Southern California has brought out their right-wing counterparts. CPUC’s proposed decision on SCE’s opt-out notes that initial opposition to smart included several local Tea Party groups: the Santa Barbara Tea Party, the Palm Springs Patriots Coalition, the Desert Valley Tea Party and Menifee Tea Party/Hemet Tea Party/Temecula Tea Party, to be exact.

CPUC’s ruling didn’t make clear just what complaints the Tea Party raised. But a quick Google search reveals that the smart meter issue is on the radar for Tea Party groups around the country, in Cleveland, Richmond, Va., the Illinois state Tea Party, and more. In California, the right-wing Eagle Forum has put together its own “NoSmartMeters” web page, citing privacy and health concerns as reasons to halt smart meter deployment.

Typical Tea Party complaints mix copious amounts of health risk talk and invasion of privacy concerns. One group calls smart meters a “Big Brother” intrusion into homes, while another calls it a violation of Fourth Amendment rights. Keeping smart meter data private is a tricky subject, and regulators in California and other states have been making rules on how it should be enforced.

So far, PG&E has reported only about 4,400 customers choosing to opt out of having a smart meter, or about 0.08 percent of their 5.4 million residential electric customers. We’ve seen similarly low numbers from Maine, where Central Maine Power is also offering opt-out for a fee. No doubt utilities around the country are keeping their fingers crossed that the numbers will stay low. Perhaps they’d better keep an eye on their local Tea Party websites.

Tags: california, cpuc, energy efficiency, general electric, itron, opt-out, pg&e, privacy, san diego gas & electric, silver spring networks, smart grid, smart meter, southern california edison, tea party, utilities