PG&E Releases Smart Meter Reports to Regain Trust

Pledging to work harder in the future to earn customers’ trust, Pacific Gas & Electric released Monday 700 pages worth of formerly confidential reports on its beleaguered SmartMeter program.

The reports show, a spokesperson said, that PG&E has been “frank, forthright and proactive” with regulators in addressing issues with the technology.

“We have confidence in this technology and in our program,” said PG&E Senior Vice President and Chief Customer Officer Helen Burt at a press conference at company headquarters.

“We also know that we’ve let some of our customers down with the quality of customer service they received. While 99 percent of our SmartMeter devices are installed and working properly, we recognize that even having less than one percent of meters with issues is still 50,000 customers, and that’s too many.”

PG&E came under increasing fire in the last year for problems with the smart meters, in particular accusations that the meters were overcharging some customers — accusations that the utility repeatedly asserted were unfounded.

PG&E also announced it has added 165 more customer service representatives to deal with billing issues, as well as other efforts to increase communication with customers. The California utility has installed about 5.5 million smart meters so far. The smart meter reports were prepared for the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC), and are available on the company’s website.

Smart. Too smart.

Monday’s announcement comes as resentment towards the program continues to simmer. Interviews suggest scant reports of over-billing may obscure a deeper issue: a fear of technological intrusion into people’s privacy, fed by a (very American) suspicion of central authority.

“People don’t like the whole notion of big brother coming into their home and measuring everything, telling them what to use and how much they should use,” said Michael Rock, town manager for Fairfax, California, which recently sent a letter to the CPUC asking for permission to halt installation of smart meters there.

Rock said that for the older generation especially, there is a certain distrust of technology. “There’s that feeling that PG&E would be spying on them, finding out everything they do in their homes,” he said.

As the controversy festered over the last several months, new concerns, about the health effects of the radio waves emitted by the meters, and that smart meters will cost meter readers their jobs, have been added to the list of complaints.

PG&E has carefully explained that the signals from the meters are well within federal guidelines, and that 80 percent of meter readers have found other jobs within PG&E (and two-thirds are temporary hires anyway).

With its exhaustive documentation and contrite press release Monday, PG&E clearly hopes to put the smart meter issue behind them. Whether the public relations strategy works remains to be seen.

But PG&E may have reason to hope. Rock said that years ago Fairfax residents were against cell towers for the same reasons, “and as a result we have miserable cell phone reception.”

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.

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