Audit finds PG&E smart meters accurate

However, the utility's customer service is faulty, according to an independent review of the controversial yet pioneering smart-meter program.

An independent review of smart meters installed in Northern California by utility Pacific Gas & Electric found no technical flaws, but a poor roll-out with customers.

The California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday released the evaluation of PG&E's controversial smart-meter program, which was conducted by consulting company The Structure Group.

After PG&E installed two-way meters in Bakersfield, Calif., customers complained that their utility prices shot up, which they blamed on the new meters. Since then, there have been questions over PG&E's handling of the program by regulators and push-back from various communities in its territory.

Earlier this summer, the CPUC contracted with Structure, which tested 750 smart meters and 147 old electromechanical meters. The test found that smart meters reported accurately and that customer billing matched the expected results.

A smart meter from PG&E PG&E

However, Structure identified problems in PG&E's customer service. In reviewing 1,378 customer complaints, Structure said PG&E didn't meet industry standards, leading to people receiving multiple bills or not having questions about smart meters answered.

"The report is encouraging in terms of the performance of actual meter hardware. However, I am very concerned about PG&E's performance in terms of industry best practices and how in some of the best practices areas, PG&E's performance has actually declined," CPUC Commissioner Dian Grueneich said in a statement.

PG&E's rocky experiences in rolling out smart meters in California has taken on national significance with other utilities trying to learn from PG&E's missteps in introducing the new technology. PG&E's meters allow people to view their energy usage on a daily basis, which helps people better understand their consumption and save energy.

In another case, smart meter installations by utility Oncor in Texas have created complaints from consumers over prices. A review found that that those meters are accurate.

Earlier this year, PG&E released an internal report identifying problems with its smart meter program, which led to a revamp of its customer service operations aimed at better educating customers. About 6.6 million gas and electric meters have been installed so far and the company plans to install 10 million by 2012.

Apart from the accuracy of meters, consumer groups are raising health concerns about the electromagnetic field from smart meters, which transmit information once an hour using a radio frequency.

On its Web site, PG&E says that radio frequency emissions from smart meters are lower than other common electronic devices, such as Wi-Fi routers and cell phones. At a press conference on Thursday, PG&E's Chief Customer Officer Helen Burt echoed those statements and pointed to experts on this question.

A number of cities and towns in PG&E's territory have considered moratoriums on smart meter installations. Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs Greg Pruett said that PG&E is holding open houses with customers and other groups. "We genuinely believe as we work and talk with customers and show that we are genuinely interested in listening to them...ultimately those cities and counties considering moratoriums will reconsider that desire," he said.

 

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