Giving short shrift to ratepayer advocates' concerns, the California Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved Pacific Gas & Electric's request to spend $49 million on initial advanced-metering deployment. Regulators did not require a determination of the overall cost-effectiveness of the program?estimated at $1.5 billion if completely built out. "We don?t want to have a $49 million boondoggle," said commissioner Geoffrey Brown at the September 22 meeting. Ratepayers are at risk if the money is not used properly or the program is a bust, he said. The funds, he said, should be placed in a trust designated solely for advanced-metering infrastructure, not funneled to executive compensation or other unrelated uses. Despite those concerns, Brown voted for the investment. Commissioner John Bohn did not worry about PG&E spending the ratepayer money inappropriately. Instead, he wanted assurances that the utility would seriously consider tapping into existing smart-metering technologies supplied by outsiders - - not limiting itself to in-house developments. \t CPUC president Mike Peevey - - who publicly advocates utilities' investment in smart meters - - urged that the $49 million be directed toward laying the groundwork for residential and small-business metering. Regulators want advanced meters to improve consumers' ability to conserve or drop power use when supplies are thin and reduce utility billing expenses. This is the commission's second approval of a utility request for predeployment rate recovery. Last month, San Diego Gas & Electric was authorized to spend $9 million on advanced-metering program startup - - pursuant to a settlement with the Utility Consumers' Action Network, according to CPUC spokesperson Terrie Prosper. \t PG&E was authorized to spend $37.4 million in predeployment capital additions and to spend $11.7 million of ratepayer funds on related expenses. These approved costs are for preparing the electric and gas systems to accept data from smart meters and establish processes for meter and communication installation and billing. \t The CPUC is expected to issue a decision on PG&E's proposed launch of its full smart-metering infrastructure entailing 9.3 million meters in May 2006. \t Don Wood, director of the Pacific Energy Policy Center, warned against universal mandatory metering. If vulnerable ratepayers - - particularly low-income customers and seniors - - can?t opt out of a program that involves rates going up with demand, their health could be jeopardized. Smart-metering programs, he explained, should be tailored to protect small customers who can?t shift their energy use. \t With this week?s vote, commissioners rejected a proposed decision by administrative law judge Michelle Cooke. That decision would have given PG&E $7 million for predeployment activities and incorporated the Office of Ratepayers Advocates' and The Utility Reform Network's opposition to full funding. "It would not be reasonable for ratepayers to fund the other activities that make up the $49 million request," she wrote.