After hearing complaints from Pacific Gas & Electric ratepayers in the Central Valley--from seniors to other economically struggling residents--about higher bills following the installation of so called “smart” meters, regulators unanimously agreed to hire an independent consultant to test the accuracy of PG&E’s meters. “There is great public concern about the accuracy of the meters, about the accuracy of the software, and communication systems that do that reading,” said Paul Clanon, California Public Utilities Commission executive director. Regulators authorized him November 20 to hire an independent consultant to investigate the matter. In addition, concerns over a rise in the number of private utility disconnections noted by the Division of Ratepayer Advocates motivated CPUC president Mike Peevey to call for a commission hearing into each investor-owned utility’s power disconnection practices and policies. Peevey said he expects the hearings to be scheduled before Christmas. The CPUC’s unanimous support for a meter investigator follows a barrage of PG&E customer complaints about a doubling and tripling of utility bills and public hearings by Senator Majority Leader Dean Florez (D-Shafter). The CPUC approved PG&E’s “smart meter” plan in July 2006. It entails the installation of 5 million electric meters and 4 million gas meters over five years at a cost of $2.2 billion. Commissioner John Bohn said he hoped the inquiry included an evaluation of whether the higher PG&E bills “are in fact in part due to higher rates as distinguished from malfunctioning meters.” The commission vote allows waiving the usual bureaucratic protocol after concluding “extraordinary circumstances” were in play. Clanon said the commission would seek reimbursement of its costs, but did not say who was ultimately on the hook for the cost of the third party investigation--ratepayers or shareholders. “The cost of the audit would be paid out of the earlier approved smart meter program,” stated PG&E spokesperson Paul Moreno. He added that “shareholders could pay any costs exceeding the program cap [of $2.2 billion].” Earlier this fall, Peevey directed PG&E to work with an independent consultant. “In order to examine the facts surrounding the issues, PG&E will work with an independent third-party chosen by us to review both the hardware and software of the Smart Meters,” Peevey stated October 14.