PG&E, Customers Clash Over Smart Meters


Ed: This story has been amended since it was first published to include comments from PG&E

A class action lawsuit in Bakersfield, California claims newly installed smart meters inflate customers electricity and gas use, resulting in steep hikes in utility bills. The plaintiffs, a group of about 200 residents, are suing Pacific Gas & Electric, their utility company, and Wellington Energy, the company that installed the meters.

In some cases, customers reported very high discrepancies in their bills. The New York Times reports that one PG&E customer testified “that the new meter logged the consumption of his two-bedroom townhouse at 791 kilowatt-hours in July, up from 236 a year earlier.” (bold added).

The lawsuit, and ensuing controversy, has left PG&E scrambling to defend the meters, which have been hailed as the first step in a nationwide “smart grid.” The company calls the lawsuit “without merit.”

Paul Moreno, a spokesman for PG&E added that “we’ve done deep dives into more than 400 bill complaints and in every case we’ve never found an issue of meter performance causing a higher bill.” He complained that while individual customers are bad-mouthing the company in the media, PG&E is not allowed to discuss its accounts — to refute their claims — without their permission.

The California Public Utilities Commission has been brought in to perform a third-party audit of the meters’ accuracy, which it hopes to have completed in the first quarter of next year.

The Times also reports that the California controversy has already caused other states to hesitate in their own smart metering program. After learning about the lawsuit, Connecticut’s Attorney General Richard Blumenthal convinced state regulators and Connecticut Light & Power, which was about to begin a large smart meter roll out, to run a pilot program first.

Smart. Too Smart.

PG&E has “acknowledged an uptick in energy pricing accompanying its smart meter roll out,” according to Venture Beat, but it attributes it to warmer weather and rising rates for electricity.

Another possible explanation: the new meters are actually more accurate than previous ones, and thus catch energy use that was previously being under-measured. But Moreno of PG&E said that while the old meters may have under-read electricity usage, it is “by a tiny, tiny amount.”

Tripping at the Starting Gate

A nationwide roll out of smart metering technology is supposed to be the first phase of a concerted effort to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Just Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden presented President Obama with a report promising smart meters in 40 million homes by 2015.

Smart meters allow utilities to track energy usage in each household by the day or hour. That information can then be used by utilities to provide different prices for electricity depending on the time of day, giving customers the opportunity to save money by, for example, running the clothes dryer at night, when electricity is cheapest.

Smart meters are also a crucial component of plans to integrate renewable energy into the electrical grid, because those sources, like wind and solar power, fluctuate with the time of day.

PG&E will spend about 2.2 billion on the meter program, which it insists will lower costs for everyone — company and customers. But if it turns out that smart meters are to blame for higher electricity bills, it’s hard to imagine how utilities will be able to pitch them to consumers as a win-win.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.