State needs to keep closer eye on SmartMeters

News last week that some of PG&E’s SmartMeters do have a flaw – some of the wireless units fail to transmit use data, so the utility uses estimates to prepare the electric bill – continues to cast doubts on how PG&E is handling the rollout of the new Smart Grid technology.

More fundamentally, it raises these questions: Why didn’t PG&E conduct a more thorough pilot test before installing 5 million SmartMeters in California? What was the oversight role of the California Public Utilities Commission?

Concerns about the SmartMeters first surfaced after hundreds of PG&E customers in Bakersfield complained about escalating electric bills after PG&E installed the first SmartMeters. The meters transmit digital data on energy use and replace mechanical meters, thus dispensing with human meter readers.

The CPUC says it has received about 600 complaints so far. PG&E will have installed 8 million SmartMeters by year’s end.

PG&E said the manufacturers tested the meters before installation. PG&E ran a pilot test in Vacaville before the Bakersfield rollout, but did not run side-by-side comparisons of the old and new meters. Bill spikes, which customers attribute to the new meters, PG&E attributes to higher rates and hotter weather. Side-by-side testing by PG&E engineers would have yielded solid data to address those concerns.

On March 30, the CPUC hired the Structure Group, a Houston consulting firm, to conduct a third-party investigation. The commission will pay Structure $1.4 million for the work, a fee which PG&E will reimburse, but ratepayers ultimately will pay.

The hiring of Structure, whose staff includes former PG&E employees, is a welcome move to end a monthslong stalemate over investigating the meters’ accuracy, but consumers would draw more comfort from a testing agency with fewer utility-industry ties.

To delve into consumer concerns, the state Senate has named a Select Committee on the Smart Grid at the urging of state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter (Kern County). It will hold its first meeting on April 26. Consumers should direct questions to his office.

The evolution toward a new electric grid is necessary if California is to achieve its goals of clean, efficient and renewable energy. But Californians need to know that the CPUC is proactively working in consumers’ interests as we take each step down that path.