Electric SmartMeters make it easy for PG&E to disconnect your electricity. They can do it with a flip of a switch from their office and that has generated a lot of concern.
This is a tragedy no one wants to see repeated. Investigators in Fairfield blamed a fatal fire in April on an unattended candle used to light the home. Four children died in the fire.
"It was a customer who had been disconnected. They were apparently using candles inappropriately and it's a tragic event," says David Ashuckian with the Division of Rate Payer Advocates.
PG&E had used SmartMeter technology to cut off electricity to the family because the family was not keeping up with its bills. Some say shutoffs will happen more frequently now as more SmartMeters are installed.
"Our concern is that with the advent of SmartMeters, which have the capability of remotely shutting off customers without having to go and physically visit the house, that that number could significantly increase," Ashuckian says.
For the first five months of 2009, PG&E used SmartMeters to cut off power to 4,300 customers. That has increased to nearly 52,000 for the same period this year, but PG&E insists the meters have not changed the way it does business.
"The advent of SmartMeters has not changed the process for working with customers nor has it changed our disconnection process," PG&E spokesman Matt Nauman says.
In fact, PG&E points to a different set of numbers.
"Through the end of May, the number of shutoffs in 2010 is down 33 percent," Nauman says.
It points to the total number of all disconnections, not just SmartMeter disconnections. The increase in SmartMeter shutoffs appears to be disproportionately large. There are now three times more electric meters installed, but SmartMeter disconnections have increased 12 fold in one year.
"We have asked for a moratorium on remote disconnection until the investigation is complete to determine what are the problems with the SmartMeters," Ashuckian says.
"We have a large variety of programs where customers can reach out to us if they are having financial difficulty," Nauman says. "Either arrange a payment or they may qualify for an assistance program."
Through the first five months of this year, 46 percent of all customers who lost their power remotely were in the energy assistance care program. We should also note that gas SmartMeters do not have the remote shutoff capability, just the electric ones.