PG&E still on the hot seat for smart meters

PG&E is one of several U.S. utilities that has been sued by customers who believe their smart meters have run amok and added hundreds of dollars to their bills.
Written by Deborah Gage, Contributor

PG&E is one of several U.S. utilities that has been sued in the last few months by customers who believe their smart meters have run amok and added hundreds of dollars to their bills.

In PG&E's case, problems appeared with the meters last summer in Kern County in the Central Valley of California, one of the hottest parts of the state. Several hundred people complained, a state senator -- Dean Florez -- held hearings, and one customer, Pete Flores, who claimed his electric bill shot from $200 to $600 after he got a smart meter, filed a lawsuit. The suit was stayed while the California Public Utilities Commission hired an auditor to investigate the meters.

Guess what -- some of the meters had problems.

One thing that's fascinated me about this drama is PG&E's repeated denials, in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary, that anything was wrong. For months, its spokespeople insisted to everybody who called that the meters were fine.

They blamed PG&E's customers for exaggerating or making up problems; a hot spell last July that caused customers to use more power; a rate increase that PG&E inexplicably put in place ahead of the hot spell; the state legislature for structuring the rate increase in a way that made it more expensive for customers; and the news media for stirring up trouble.

Finally last week, PG&E's spokespeople 'fessed up. Different people within the utility still don't have their stories straight, but they're close --  some meters weren't properly installed, some had faulty wireless connections, some needed software upgrades so they could store data in order to create bills; eight meters didn't work. Ninety-nine meters out of 100 -- and over 5 million have been installed -- were fine

PG&E Chairman and CEO Peter Darbee said Tuesday that his cell phone and Blackberry lose signals sometimes too.

Darbee was in Burlingame, a few miles south of San Francisco, to speak to the National Venture Capital Association, which is holding its annual meeting. The title of his talk was, "How a Visionary Utility Executive Thinks Green."

Inevitably, however, the subject turned to smart meters, and Darbee didn't look so smart. One more time, he was forced to defend PG&E's performance in front of a roomful of venture capitalists who are trying to figure out how their clean tech companies are going to be able to do business with PG&E.

"When new technology is introduced, it pays to have communication plans out there," Darbee told them. "It's amazing how many of us forget that. I've been burned innumerable times."

PG&E now has a "quick-response" team for PR crises and a Web site full of good news about smart meters, including a testimonial from a customer who's paying a $1,300 bill. But the utility is going to have to do better than that.

Electric cars are coming, and even if they work they way they should, no utility is ready to handle those, according to Darbee -- certainly not PG&E. One electric car draws as much power (6.6 kilowatt-hours) as the peak draw of a home in San Ramon (where it's hot) or three homes in Berkeley (where the fog rolls in off the bay).

"We're developing heat maps and forecasts of what demand will be and looking at our network -- where do we have to beef it up with additional distribution lines or transformers," he said. "We believe they will hit here first in the Bay Area, just as the hybrids did."

My first smart meter bill is due to arrive this month -- I have my fingers crossed.

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