Report: PG&E's SmartMeters are accurate

September 2, 2010 7:09:29 PM PDT
A state ordered investigation into PG&E's SmartMeters shows they are accurate, despite thousands of complaints to the company and 7 On Your Side.

The report was put together by a third party utility consulting firm out of Texas named The Structure Group. The report is long and took five months to put together, but the bottom line is SmartMeters work, PG&E's customer service does not.

The California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) meeting was packed Thursday; the fate of SmartMeters hanging in the balance. If the study showed the meters were inaccurate, a multi-billion dollar program might have to be scrapped.

"From a laboratory testing perspective, 100 percent of the meters tested passed accuracy tests. From [a] field perspective, 100 percent of the SmartMeters passed our testing," said Stacey Wood with The Structure Group.

That's right, on every single test in this study, SmartMeters received a perfect score.

So where is the problem? PG&E's customer service. The study says that is where the ball was dropped, and for that, the utility was taken to the woodshed.

"Customers are in fact to be treated as intelligent human beings and not the enemy," said CPUC commissioner John Bohn.

"We did hear in there, and it is no surprise, that PG&E's customer's service was abysmal, [and] that they blew customers off when they called to complain," said Mindy Spatt with The Utility Reform Network (TURN).

Still, some think there is more to it than customer service issues. Katherine Lotti of Pacifica filed a formal complaint about the meters after her monthly bill doubled.

"I'm very disappointed. I'm heartbroken," she said. "I can't believe that we're going to have these outrageous bills."

PG&E says it has faith in the meters and will do better in the future.

"We heard loud and clear that what was found lacking was customer communication and customer service," said PG&E senior vice president Helen Burt.

Investigators tested about 760 meters in all and concluded increases in rates, higher bills because of hot weather, put together with lousy customer service, is why consumers do not trust the meters.

Consumer advocates say there's more to it than that. They are crying foul while PG&E is relieved, if not off the hook, and customers are left wondering -- what did they know and when did they know it?

"There were weaknesses in the focus on customer service and that some PG&E practices found were partially not compliant relative to industry best practices," said Wood.

That is a consultant's way of saying PG&E didn't react much when customers complained.

"It is no surprise to anyone who lives in PG&E territory that their customer service could be better, we know that. However, this investigation does not put all of the customer concerns to rest. Absolutely not," said Spatt. "Are consumers all just out of their minds? Have the meters not made consumers smarter, but actually made them dumber? Do they just don't understand how high PG&E rates are? I mean, that's basically the upshot of what was said in there."

The study says the meters work all but perfectly, and that is what PG&E has been saying all along.

"We do believe SmartMeters are accurate. We have been reporting since May as we made all of our information available that 99 percent of these meters are accurate," said Burt. "There are a few, and we've reported those on a weekly basis on our website, where we found issues. To date, out of 6.6 million we found 10 meters that don't measure accurately and we've removed those."

But they could be accurate and your bill, not. The Structure Group confirmed to 7 On Your Side it did not investigate the communication flaws in the SmartMeter system.

Back in April, PG&E admitted under tough questioning at a state Senate hearing that 43,000 meters had communication and installation issues. But PG&E says those issues are temporary.

"Once the meters are transitioned then they do bill appropriately," said Burt.

One of the reason there were so many complaints was PG&E's internal controls. A bill was not kicked out for review until it was $1,700 more than the month before. Now that figure has been dropped to $300.


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