Commission to investigate PG&E 'smart meters'

January 26, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
An independent investigation will be launched soon into whether new so-called "smart meters" being installed by PG&E are leading to inaccurate higher readings and inflated bills.

By 2012, PG&E expects to have installed smart meters for every one of its 10 million customers. The new meters are just beginning to be put in here in the Bay Area and already complaints are starting to come in

Gary Damiano of Belmont knows one thing. His PG&E bills have been higher since his smart meter was installed in July.

"There was no change in any of our usage at home. We didn't add any major appliances. We didn't have anybody additionally living at home," he explains. "So, the only change that we could see was the installation of the smart meter."

Smart meters allow utilities to get an hour-by-hour reading of a customer's energy usage. Under the old meters, PG&E would get one reading for the entire month. The utility says the new smart meters allow them to offer customers both money and energy saving options.

"Consumers can stay on the rates they enjoy now or they can opt for rate programs that encourage them to save energy during peak periods by giving them a reward for their usage during off peak periods," says PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno.

However, at least 450 PG&E customers have filed formal complaints with the State Public Utilities Commission since July. They argue that smart meters have lead to higher bills.

Mark Toney is Executive Director of the Utility Reform Network in San Francisco. He says, "PG&E ought to be ordered to have a moratorium on installing these meters until we get down to figuring out the root of the problem."

The utility has investigated all the complaints and insists the smart meters are accurate. They say there are other reasons for the higher bills.

"There's no link between the smart meter performance and higher bills. What customers have experienced is the rate increases that occurred since they received their smart meter," Moreno says.

A 7 on Your Side analysis found that Damiano's energy usage went up 30 percent since his smart meter was installed in late July. PG&E points out Damiano's energy usage also went up significantly during the same months the year before his smart meter was installed. The utility found in 100 percent of cases it investigated, its smart meters were accurate.

"My goodness. 100 percent? 100 percent?" Toney asks. "People are, customers are 100 percent wrong and PG&E is 100 percent correct?"

Both Toney and Damiano support a third-party investigation of smart meters, and that is what is going to happen. The California Public Utilities Commission will soon announce the hiring of an independent investigator to review the matter.

"We need to make sure that what the utilities are using to base their bills on are accurate," says CPUC Chief of Staff Carol Brown.

The investigator will look at everything from the smart meter to the module that enables PG&E to read the meters remotely. The communication module is made by Silver Spring Networks, a company based in Redwood City that specializes in energy efficiency. The module shoots the information from smart meters to access points throughout PG&E's service area, and then back to PG&E. Silver Spring says the system is 100 percent accurate.

"We've checked in every way that we know how, with every device being monitored constantly over the network, to make sure it's working accurately," says Silver Spring Vice President Eric Dresselhuys.

Damiano continues to search for ways to reduce his energy costs. He agreed to an energy audit from PG&E. They looked at everything from his entertainment center, to heating and air conditioning, to his kitchen appliances.

"It will help him reduce his energy consumption, but what it will also do is identify where the energy that is consumed is going," says Jeff Smith with PG&E.

The information gathered by walking around the house is used to fill out an on line form. The audit identified areas where Damiano could save energy including reducing his thermostat to 55 degrees when asleep, replacing his old refrigerator, and controlling air leakage.

Damiano is glad he did it.

"It still doesn't explain why our energy bill spiked in September. At least we have a better way of dealing with it right now," he says.

ABC7 will continue to follow the investigation into the smart meters.