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PG&E Apologizes for Smart Meter Problems, but Some Aren't Satisfied

By Bay City News
Thursday May 13, 2010 - 09:33:00 AM

PG&E on Monday issued an apology along with 45 reports dating back to August 2006 detailing reviews, monitoring, testing, and corrections identified in the company's SmartMeter program. 

"While 99 percent of our SmartMeter devices are installed and working properly, we recognize that even having less than 1 percent of meters with issues is still 50,000 customers, and that's too many," said Helen Burt, senior vice president and chief customer officer of the San Francisco-based utility that serves much of Northern and Central California. "We pledge to address customer service issues better than we have been, more quickly, and more aggressively." 

SmartMeters are advanced utility meters that wirelessly communicate usage information to customers and utility companies. The California Pacific Utilities Commission approved PG&E to install the newer, smarter meters because, they said, the meters would give customers detailed information about their own energy usage, encouraging them to cut down. 

But since PG&E began sporadic installation of the SmartMeters throughout the state in November 2006, the CPUC, PG&E, and various consumer advocacy groups have received numerous complaints about overcharging and other concerns. 

Specifically, the CPUC said they have received approximately 600 complaints in PG&E's service area since January 2009, compared to 10 in Edison's service area in Southern California and 15 in the San Diego Gas and Electric Company's service area. 

As a result of the complaints - many of which came from consumers in the San Joaquin Valley during the summer of 2009 - and pressure from legislators like Senator Dean Florez, D-Shafter, the CPUC launched an investigation into the company in March of this year. 

PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno said the company has received roughly 1,000 complaints, and he also confirmed that there have been some 23,000 cases since 2006 in which a piece of equipment called the "gas module" was incorrectly installed, many of which resulted in an incorrect gas bill. 

But Moreno said that nearly all of those situations have been rectified with customers and others preempted. He said the company expects all of their customers to have SmartMeters installed by 2012. 

"We're installing about 15,000 per day," he said. 

After issuing their apology on Monday, PG&E outlined some of the steps they are taking to address consumer complaints, including expanding testing, increasing the number of customer service "answer centers" and adding more customer service representatives, among others. 

But Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for the consumer advocacy group The Utility Reform Network, said the company should stop installing the meters altogether until the CPUC has completed their investigation. 

The CPUC stated that it nixed the moratorium idea because the number of complaints compared to the total number of installations doesn't validate it. "There are millions of SmartMeters operating around the globe with no complaints," it said. 

In the meantime, customers like Larry Chang, who is a small business owner in Oakland, have decided to refuse the SmartMeters by posting signage on their meters. 

Chang said the company has not provided enough information about the benefits to the customers to warrant the installations. Although the company has touted that the technology will allow customers to track their energy usage, Chang said he would have to buy all new "Smart" appliances if he really wants to use SmartMeters as a personal energy auditing system. 

Chang was one of 50 community members in Oakland who agreed to refuse SmartMeter installations in a neighborhood meeting focused on the potential benefits and detriments of the technology held last Tuesday. He plans to keep a sign on his old utility meter that reads "Don't even think about installing a 'SmartMeter' here," until PG&E caves. 

"If I could find a way to get off of PG&E Service, I might very well do that at some point," said Chang.