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Do smart meters boost energy bills? Not so, study concludes

September 2, 2010 |  2:42 pm

SmartMeterInstall P&E’s smart meters are performing accurately, according to an independent study released Thursday, after a rickety rollout that has led to thousands of consumer complaints.

Customers in the spring began complaining of high energy bills almost as soon as PG&E started installing the smart meters. As of Aug. 15, the utilities commission had received 4,471 complaints and inquiries regarding the PG&E meters, compared with just 88 for San Diego Gas & Electric and 169 for Southern California Edison.

Utilities use the meters to remotely determine household energy use, enabling them to charge more for power during peak demand. San Francisco-based PG&E is spending about $2.2 billion to install 10 million meters. About 6.4 million gas and electric smart meters had been installed as of early August.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s customer service, however, could use some sprucing up, the probe found.
Testing of more than 750 smart meters and 147 electromechanical meters concluded that all were working as expected, the California Public Utilities Commission said..

Houston-based energy and utility consultancy The Structure Group administered the study, which included tests in laboratories and in the field. The group also reviewed 1,378 complaints about the meters and conducted in-depth interviews with customers.

The $1.4 million audit, for which PG&E is reimbursing the agency, determined that the utility could have done a better job communicating with and notifying customers about smart meter installation.
Consumers were left confused and frustrated by several incidents in which canceled bills linked to the meters were followed by rebilling statements.

The utilities commission was also on the hook, the study found: The agency deemed many complaints to be closed even though the customers weren’t yet satisfied.

“Customers won’t fully realize the many potential benefits of Smart Meters and other grid upgrades unless utilities and regulators place more emphasis on the human side of the equation,” Commissioner Nancy E. Ryan said in a statement.

Several municipalities in Northern California have already asked regulators to prevent the meters from being installed until accuracy issues are sorted out.

The meters, which transmit energy use data wirelessly to the utilities, have also sparked health worries about radiation levels. The utilities commission has received around 2,000 such complaints, most from Northern California.

For several days last week, residents of Santa Cruz County protested what they called “forced installation” of smart meters on private property, with some expressing worries that the radiation could lead to brain cancer. Watsonville and Fairfax passed laws banning the meters within city limits.

According to PG&E CEO Peter Darbee, the company analyzed emissions from cell phones compared with smart meters positioned 10 feet away from a person and found that “emissions received from a cell phone are 13,000 times more than [from] a smart meter,” Darbee said. “You have to live in a home for 13,000 years before it compares to use of a cell phone for a year.”

--Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Pacific Gas & Electric technician installs a smart meter. Credit: PG&E