Customer Smart Meter Suspicions Put PG&E on Defensive

By Published On: October 23, 2009

Despite senatorial interest in customer complaints about two-fold-plus increases in monthly utility bills, Pacific Gas & Electric is continuing to install “smart meters.” Some allege meters are to blame for high bills. After getting an order from regulators, PG&E is hiring a third party auditor to inspect the meters. Central Valley PG&E customers voiced their concerns to state Senate majority leader Dean Florez (D-Shafter), who held two town hall meetings earlier this month to air objections to bill hikes after installation of smart electric meters. “Folks started coming out of the woodwork,” said Florez chief of staff Bob Alvarez when the lawmaker called an initial town meeting October 5. A subsequent hearing occurred October 21. At the hearings, PG&E representatives explained the higher bills were a result of both hot weather and rate increases. “Customers deserve confidence in their meters,” PG&E spokesperson Jeff Smith said of the meetings. Consumers not only complained of high bills, they made the distinction between kWh use and rates, according to Mark Toney, The Utility Reform Network executive director. Many noted their bills increased even though their power usage did not. “It’s a question of credibility. Are you going to believe folks coming in with their bills or PG&E?” asked Alvarez. A PG&E representative agreed that the issue of consistent kWh use, including the bill’s price, is a concern. PG&E did not find meters transmitting data incorrectly, according to Smith. The utility field tested 1,700 meters at customers’ request. There are a total of 1.7 million meters installed in PG&E territory so far. When meters are field-tested, PG&E looks for calibration, radio signals, and whether the data sent to PG&E’s communications office is correct, according to Smith. Data from the meters are sent to a PG&E-controlled server farm for use by the utility and for storage, according to the utility. Customer data is held strictly confidential by the utility, Smith said. It may not be sold or otherwise made public. Regulators authorized PG&E’s $2.2 billion smart meter plan, which in turn, is a component of higher rates. PG&E claims that efficiencies from the meters would result in a cost decrease of about $200 million/year (Circuit, August 28, 2009). Residential, not industrial concerns came forward at the public meetings, according to the state senator’s office. PG&E’s Smith said that the utility is obtaining a list of customers who claim their kWh use hasn’t changed, and expects to look into the assertions. He added that PG&E would help those customers identify where they may save energy. Consumers claimed that their requests to have the meters inspected were turned down by the utility. PG&E maintains it honors inspection requests. Senator Florez laid out 10 recommendations to the CPUC in an October 7 letter. They included increased field testing for installed meters upon request within 48 hours and a moratorium on new installations until independent experts verify their accuracy. TURN also is requesting a moratorium. The commission responded October 14. It noted it requires PG&E to “work with an independent third-party chosen by us to review both the hardware and software of the Smart Meters,” CPUC president Mike Peevey stated. He also promised to convene an internal task force. PG&E is making plans to hire an independent auditor, according to Smith. In addition, the utility is “looking into creating a customer advisory board.” However, he added that without evidence of malfunctioning meters, the utility isn’t considering a moratorium on new installations. Initially, the utility launched “first generation” meter installations. It then replaced them with “second generation” meters in the Bakersfield area after getting regulators’ approval. Regulators approved plans by PG&E, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric to spend about $5 billion of ratepayer funds statewide on new electric and gas meters. So-called smart meters are set to send utilities real-time information about customer consumption. At the same time, they could offer customers the option of using more or less energy as prices fluctuate. As for consumers’ ability to access lower prices during certain times while avoiding higher prices at other times (“dynamic pricing”), the California Public Utilities Commission has not mandated that pricing scheme. Legislation signed recently into law, SB 695, prohibits the CPUC from requiring residential time-of-use rates. Queries to the CPUC’s head of the Consumer Protection & Safety Divisions were not answered. SDG&E began meter installation last year. Edison began installing its new meters in Whittier in September.

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