Thinking Tech

California smart meters work fine -- it's the utility that needs work

California smart meters work fine -- it's the utility that needs work

Posting in Energy

In a closely watched report, an independent investigator found that smart meters installed by Pacific Gas & Electric work as they should -- the problems are PG&E's.

The investigation into the smart meters was ordered last April by the California Public Utilities Commission, after PG&E was sued by customers in Bakersfield and over 1,300 customers complained that their bills were too high and their smart meters didn't work.

On Thursday, the investigator, called Structure, released its report. The meters are working -- they're accurately recording electricity usage, processing data and generating correct bills, Structure found, and no new issues have cropped up.

Instead, what was behind the high bills was a combination of a heat wave in Bakersfield, ill-timed rate increases, rates that were incorrectly applied, errors by meter readers and very poor communication and customer service from PG&E.

Customers who felt dissatisfied or ignored and got mad enough called their local politicians, public officials, reporters and lawyers and complained.

And as doubts about the meters grew, PG&E just kept installing them. At my neighborhood meeting about smart meters this summer, representatives of the utility were defensive -- they blamed the media for stirring up trouble and told the hostile crowd, which was mostly senior citizens on limited incomes, that the meters worked fine. PG&E brags that it's installed over 6.5 million meters so far and is averaging 15,000 installations a day.

The smart meters aren't completely cleared by Structure's report. Structure notes that its investigation was limited in scope and was not "an exhaustive review of all Smart Meter system deployment documentations, configurations, and meter installations."

Still, it's interesting that the only inaccurate meters Structure tested turned out to be electromechanical meters -- the meters that are being replaced.

None of the 611 smart meters that Structure tested failed the utility commission's accuracy test, but six out of 141 electromechanical meters failed.

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure