Independent Study: PG&E Smart Meters Behave

By Published On: September 3, 2010

An independent study found that Pacific Gas & Electric’s smart meters measure power usage correctly. It criticized, though, both the way the utility handles customer complaints and deploys the devices. “They are accurately recording usage,” said Stacey Wood, principal of The Structure Group. That organization delved into how the meters were working after a firestorm of complaints about their accuracy in the San Joaquin Valley in 2009. She presented the group’s findings to the California Public Utilities Commission September 2. CPUC president Mike Peevey noted that The Structure Group’s report echoes a recent Navigant Consulting study, which found that the smart meters installed in Texas correctly measure power usage. Peevey and other commissioners criticized PG&E for the way it’s handled complaints about higher bills after smart meter installations and told the utility to do better in the future. “Customers are in fact to be treated as intelligent human beings, not like the enemy,” said commissioner John Bohn. Reacting to the study, Pacific Gas & Electric senior vice president and chief customer officer Helen Burt apologized to customers who have had a bad experience with smart meters. “We are working to rebuild trust,” she said after the report’s release. Commissioners said the report does not close the book on concern about smart meters, but instead signals the need for a change in strategy when it comes to rolling out the smart grid. “This report should serve as a wakeup call,” said commissioner Nancy Ryan, who announced she was forming a CPUC task force to bring “a consumer emphasis” to the state’s smart grid program. She said smart meters and smart grid programs have to deliver “real value to consumers.” That can’t happen, according to Ryan, until additional policies and elements are put in place to turn the “potential benefits” of smart meters into “real benefits” to utility customers. To provide that value, the smart grid must give ratepayers the ability to use information generated by the meters to control their energy use and save money. The commission delayed implementing that part of smart meter applications for a few years while details of “dynamic pricing” are worked out. Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric have deployed smart meters as well but there has been virtually no customer backlash. The CPUC ordered The Structure Group study earlier this year after legislative hearings in Bakersfield and Fresno highlighted complaints about suddenly higher PG&E bills after smart meter installation. PG&E admitted in May that its smart meter installation process had been plagued with some problems and that it had not done a good job of responding to customer concerns (Current, May 14, 2010). PG&E has installed 6.6 million smart power and gas meters since 2007 and expects to reach its goal of 10 million new meters by 2012, said Burt. The commission in 2006 authorized the utility to install smart meters on all its customers’ premises at a cost of $1.7 billion. Specifically, Wood told the commission The Structure Group found 100 percent of the smart meters it tested measured electricity use within what the CPUC considers the acceptable range of accuracy. As a comparison point, the group also tested old-fashioned electromechanical meters and found that 95.92 percent of them were accurate. The group tested 156 meters in the laboratory, plus 611 smart meters and 147 electromechanical meters in the field. The group further found that PG&E’s smart meter system accurately transmitted power measurements to the utility office. Where problems, arose, according to Wood, was in how the utility went about deploying smart meters. She noted that in the Central Valley PG&E installed meters before it installed the communications relay system to remotely communicate with the devices. Consequently, meter readers continued to manually read smart meters for four months until the utility installed the communications network hardware. Billing errors resulted. The group also found that PG&E did not do a good job of handling complaints about high bills after it installed smart meters. In some cases, Wood said, PG&E misapplied tariffs on homes that had been modified since the previous summer--for instance with the addition of a swimming pool. Smart meter installations in Kern County also coincided both with record heat in the summer of 2009--which had 17 days above 100 degrees in the area--and a rate increase. The combination resulted in higher bills, which customers thought might be related to the new meters. Concern was heightened by the recession, Wood pointed out. When customers did complain, PG&E did not provide people with data to help resolve their issues, according to the report. The CPUC did not do a good job of resolving the complaints it received either, the study found. CPUC executive director Paul Clanon admitted that the commission needs to improve the way it handles consumer complaints across the board, not just those related to smart meters. He said he has ordered the agency’s staff to develop a plan to improve the complaint resolution process.

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