PG&E apologizes for SmartMeter problems


The utility has taken a beating in Sacramento and in the media over its secrecy and denial of problems associated with the SmartMeter program. Faced with an angry public and skeptical politicians, the utility was ordered to turn over documents, and now it's making the case it was also turning over a new leaf.

"To give you a sense of the report, it covers 45 months, it's more than 700 pages, it's about the size of a Manhattan Yellow Pages," said Greg Pruett of PG&E.

Full disclosure was the theme of Monday's news conference. The utility, which just weeks ago was still contending there were no issues, conceded there are problems and allowed how the documents prove it.

"On page 9 of our May 2009 report it notes, 'Poor performance less than 96 percent' of Aclara electric meters," said Pruett.

The issues cited in the report are highly technical and have generally been addressed.

PG&E says most SmartMeter related problems come not from poor equipment and installation, but from poor customer relations.

"It's just so important to regain our customers' trust," said chief customer officer Helen Burt. "And frankly Michael [Finney], we hope our customers don't have to call 7 On Your Side to get an issue resolved with us."

PG&E says it is setting up a new customer service department of 165 agents, specially trained to react to complaints about the SmartMeter program.

Still, the utility maintains only a handful of SmarMeters have actually failed.

At the news conference, I addressed Burt, saying, "There's a perception among consumers calling 7 On Your Side that PG&E is hiding behind statistics; that you say you have eight broken meters, and yet you have tens of thousands of people you later admit to have problems with the billing. To the consumer it's just a problem with the billing."

She replied, "You know, you are going to be surprised about this, but I couldn't agree with you more. This is not about statistics -- this is about people, this is about consumers."

Burt says PG&E was thinking in terms of infrastructure and high voltage, not end-user satisfaction.

"I really don't believe that we did a really good job of seeing the world through the lens of the customer," said Burt. "And you can talk about 1 percent, 48,000, 50,000. If you're that 50,000, it makes a big difference. That's where I am talking about trying to restore the trust of our customers."

The utility says its representatives will no longer tell customers concerned with their SmartMeter to just "live with it." It will, instead, investigate concerns both in the office and out in the field.

This was a great exercise in damage control. However, we will be keeping track to see if there is a new openness to consumer concerns and complaints.

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