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.

18 responses

  1. As a utility guy I see this a barely a blip on the radar. PG&E has 5.1 million electric customers and 4.2 gas customers. They have the size to invest in cutting edge technology and they do. A few perspective points:

    “791 kilowatt-hours in July, up from 236 a year earlier.” 791 is very well within range of what I'd expect to see for a condo / smaller apartment. 236 is VERY low- like someone was on vacation that month last year. I hear high bill complaints every day and the first thing the customer does is blame the meter. So finding a lawyer and 200 customers who are convinced their meter is reading wrong is not a difficult task.

    Electric meters very rarely malfunction to over read or under read. They just stop. Funny how customers don't often call to complain when their electric bill hits 0 kWh. :-)

    Finally if other utilities are using this info as a reason to back off on AMI. It's because there is an underlying issue, and this PG&E challenge is just being used as cover because it plays well as a scare tactic. There are legitimate security concerns, technology learning curve issues for large scale implementations and just a common sense approach to wait for the best technologies and companies to be shaken out with early adopters like PG&E.

    Smart meters are coming, they will help customers manage energy (if they use it to save $ and kWh and they will given the right rate structures) and it will help utilities manage infrastructure and reduce truck rolls for meter reads and troubleshooting. I'm not sure they will roll out as fast as politicians promise they will but when have we ever been able to trust a politician's promises anyway?

    1. How authentic the calibration of these so called “smart meters” is very ominous. Truly one must begin to wonder how much information PG&E and other Utility Monopolies can acquire and what they will do with that information. Are these so called Smart Meters in the Citizenry's best Interest or is it another step towards Big Brother and the complete eradication of our individual freedom?

      I have closely monitored my new smart meter. In a 2.5 hour period, after I unplugged everything in my house, switched off the main power line to the A/C and only had my new refrigerator plugged in, the smart meter indicated I consumed 15 Kilowatts! That is 5 Kilowatts per hour! Something does not smell right here!

      I would like to know if there are any independent resources or contractors I can contact to verify how accurate these smart meters are???? Would appreciate your feed back.

  2. I've been monitoring my meter and usage ever since I received a one month bill that was at least 4 times my normal usage, and I have the found the metering to be very accurate, which suggests to me that since pg&e can communicate with their meter ( and thereby modify the data) there was a one time instance of pg&e screwing up meter numbers for a large area of customers. Only the whistle blower in pg&e will get us a refund. Please step up to the plate. We need you !

  3. I have lived in several homes over the past 25 years in PG&E territory. I've found that each time I've moved into a new home, it was like rolling the dice as to what your electricity meter was going to do. One home would have a very low bill, and the next would have a very high bill. I've talked with neighbors who had a similar dwellings, number of people living with them and similar life styles, and their bills were equally all over the map.

    After calling PG&E and talking to their meter readers several times over the years, I've always been talked out of replacing a “high” reading meter, as everyone assured me that the old analog/mechanical meters would error in favor of the consumer over 95% of the time. I believe that my “high” reading meters were actually the accurate ones.

    I'm rarely a conspiracy theorist, but I think the aging meters could be a major part of PG&E's recent financial problems. I believe the recent outburst over higher bills due to SmartMeter roll out is proof of this concept. This is a quasi public agency. If everyone in PG&E's service areas start reporting accurate meter readings, the elevated billing levels should in turn lower rates for everyone. I can't wait to get my SmartMeter to see what happens.

  4. This smart meter has the ability to charge by the hour. You do not know when the rates change or what rate you are being charged. It is like filling up your car and in the middle of filling your tank the prices change and you don't know it until you pay your bill. Nice work PG&E

  5. Well, of course the electric utilities are going to use the benefit of advanced technology to extract greater profits from their customers. Why shouldn’t they take the opportunity to fleece you when all of their claims are unverifiable? It’s not like you’re buying a LOAF OF BREAD and you will have a LOAF OF BREAD at the end of the transaction. You’re getting electrons and they’re daring you to count them, yourself. Look, all the other companies are doing it; it wouldn’t be fair to deny PG&E the same opportunity to take this opportunity to increase profit in exchange for the only thing that’s standing in their way: their own moral fiber.

  6. We have a solar pool heater, and next installed a solar hot water heater. We were thrilled to see our FP&L drop substantially after installing the solar water heater. THEN THEY INSTALLED THE SMART METER. Now our elec bills are even higher than they were BEFORE we changed the pool and hot water over to solar, and we are not big AC users. We use ceiling fans and even when we use the AC, we keep it set to 78 degrees. I know this “smart meter” is inflating my bill but how can we prove it? How can we fight it? And by the way, we were never offered the option to opt-out. If that had been a viable option, there should be some penalty to FPL for deliberately notbtelling people they had that option!

  7. I have also suffered PG&E  bills that are twice what they were last year even with all our modifications. We have all unnecessary appliances unplugged when not in use and the bill indicated our usage has doubled. What is up with all that?

  8. Pingback: BC Hydro and Smart Meters: Part 2 – Measurement Accuracy « We The Engineers
  9. This pdf from Itron’s own website brags about padding your electric bill:,%20Automated%20Meter%20Reading%20for%20Impressive%20Results%20%20-%20City%20gains%20efficiency%20and%20additional%20revenues.pdf

    It clearly states: “We put five of these meters alongside five new electromechanical meters. After one month, the CENTRON R300 meters proved their ability to measure energy usage not measured by the electromechanical meters. This accuracy showed two kilowatt hours more than the electromechanical meters. That does not sound like much of a difference, but when it is multiplied by 10,000 end points, it adds up,” said Hastings.”

    Their black box smart meters consistently measured higher usage compared to brand new electromechanical meters, and Itron brags about it to utility co buyers as a feature, promising “additional revenue” as a result.

  10. The only way your going to PROVE abuse is to do either of the following:

    1. Take a camcorder, and SHUT OFF YOUR MAIN BREAKER.  Thus the load should be zero.  If the smart meter reads anything else, then it has been programmed deliberately to inflate the bill.  Record it, post it on the internet, submit for court.

    2. Buy and purchase your own smart meter and put it alongside theirs in series.  When you get a different reading from your smart meter to there’s sue.

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