Oooops……PG&E admits to SmartMeter problems

From the Fresno Bee

Posted at 07:35 AM on Wednesday, May. 12, 2010   By Tim Sheehan / The Fresno Bee

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Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is acknowledging problems with up to 43,000 of its SmartMeters — and admitting missteps in handling customer complaints of higher gas and electric bills.

But critics of the utility believe the meter problems are more numerous than PG&E is letting on in more than 600 pages of documents made public Monday.

The reports, provided to state regulators over the past four years, and PG&E’s comments represent an about-face for the utility. Until this week, PG&E steadfastly defended its SmartMeters against a rising tide of complaints about their accuracy.

PG&E continues to express confidence in the meters. But Helen Burt, the utility’s senior vice president and customer service officer, said PG&E let customers down by failing to share information about meter problems earlier.

About 5.5 million SmartMeters have been installed across PG&E’s service area, mostly in the Central Valley and the Bay Area. It hopes to eventually convert nearly 10 million customers to the meters by 2012.

But the rollout of the meters in Fresno and Kern counties last summer and fall coincided with many customers facing higher electricity bills than they had in the past. For months, PG&E officials said the problem wasn’t with the SmartMeters, but hotter weather, more power use and increased utility rates.

“We recognize that some customers question whether they can have faith in our SmartMeter program and, frankly, in PG&E,” Burt said Monday. “We also know we’ve let some of our customers down with the quality of customer service they received.”

“If you think about it, we really didn’t see the world through the lens of the customers,” Burt added.

SmartMeters use wireless technology to transmit information about a customer’s power and gas use to the utility on a real-time basis, eliminating the need for meter readers to go door-to-door.

“While 99% of our SmartMeter devices are installed and working properly, we recognize that even having less than 1% of meters with issues is still 50,000 customers,” Burt said.

Late last year, the state Public Utilities Commission — spurred by widespread questions about higher power bills after customers received their SmartMeters — ordered an independent audit of the meters to verify their accuracy. A report on that investigation is not due until this summer.

State Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, said he believes the audit will show more problems with PG&E’s meters, especially in the early stages of installation in the Valley.

“I think there’s more to come on this. I think the audit is going to show more SmartMeters at the beginning of this process that weren’t functioning right,” Florez said. “We just knew things weren’t going right when people started seeing three to four times higher bills last summer.”

The reports issued Monday show that PG&E identified nearly 140 different concerns with the meters, including four affecting customer billing: incorrect installations, failures in the meters’ wireless communications and data storage, and meter inaccuracy.

Jeff Smith, a PG&E spokesman in Fresno, said the utility found problems with about 43,000 meters across its entire service area. He said PG&E didn’t have a breakdown of how many meter issues were reported in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Installation errors accounted for about 23,000 meter problems, Smith said, as technicians either set the dials too high or too low. “In most of those cases, the customers either received a bill that was 50% too high or 50% too low,” Smith said.

Another 11,376 meters did not correctly store a customer’s usage information, while 9,000 more had problems with their wireless connection — similar to a “dropped call” on a cellular telephone, Smith said.

Only eight meters were identified as providing faulty measurements of power use and transmitting incorrect data for billing, Smith said.

Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, a ratepayer advocacy group, is skeptical of the error rates reported by PG&E.

“These are an adjustment from the original number PG&E was using, which was zero,” Spatt said. “We have no reason to believe this isn’t just the tip of the iceberg.”

Florez and TURN are both pushing for a moratorium on the installation of any more meters by PG&E until the state audit is finished.

PG&E says it plans to continue installing new meters.

The continuing scrutiny of the SmartMeters comes at a politically touchy time for PG&E, which is spending millions of dollars backing Proposition 16 on the June primary ballot. The measure would amend the state Constitution to require voters to approve, by a two-thirds majority, any effort by cities or local governments to form their own utility districts.

Critics say the measure would solidify PG&E’s monopoly against municipal utilities that often provide electricity at lower rates.

“The issue is about PG&E’s priorities,” Florez said. “They’re sinking $30 million into stopping people from creating competition, but for that kind of money they could have given people an in-home display allowing consumers to read and monitor their electricity use.”

TURN’s Spatt said PG&E “is trying to lock customers in with Prop. 16 while giving substandard service at high rates.”

“Most companies, if they wanted to keep customers, would give good service at reasonable, reliable rates,” she said. “I think voters are understandably mistrustful of this company.”

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