Consumer advocates call SoCalGas 'smart' meters too costly
The state's official advocate for utility ratepayers has asked regulators to reverse a prior approval of a $1-billion program to install high-tech "smart" gas meters on 6 million homes from Fresno and the Mexican border.
The Division of Ratepayer Advocates, backed by the nonprofit consumer group, the Utility Reform Network, on Wednesday filed a joint petition with the California Public Utilities Commission.
The $1-billion price tag for Southern California Gas Co.'s smart meters would put a financial burden on residential customers, who already are being asked to pay $2.5 billion to upgrade pipeline safety and another $1.6 billion in rate hikes, the two groups said.
The pipeline safety program is a response to the fatal explosion last year of a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. pipeline in San Bruno, south of San Francisco.
"Safety, not smart meters, is the priority for consumers," said Joe Como, acting director of the Division of Ratepayer Advocates. "Circumstances have changed since the [commission] approved these unnecessary meters and in the environment of escalating energy bills, customers should not have to foot the billion-dollar bill for technology that provides them little, if any benefits."
Smart meters are designed to help consumers save energy by being able to monitor their gas use at any time to see how much gas they are using in furnaces, water heaters and stoves. However, the PUC's own investigation estimates that widespread use of smart meters would only cut usage by about 1% over the next 25 years.
Because natural gas can be purchased by utilities ahead of the heating system and stored for months, its price is not as volatile as rates for electricity, critics said, and hour-by-hour monitoring is less helpful as a conservation technique.
The PUC approved the smart meter spending by a 3-2 vote on April 9, 2010.
SoCalGas said it opposes the consumer group's petition and will file a formal response to the PUC this week.
-- Marc Lifsher
Photo: Old-style, non-"smart" residential gas meter. Photo: Brent Lewin / Bloomberg