PG&E Owns Up to Smart Meter Errors, But Falls Short of Contrition

Last Updated Apr 27, 2010 1:35 PM EDT

Pacific Gas & Electric probably hoped for a better result from its pioneering smart meter program than a congressional hearing in its home state. But the new meters are malfunctioning, customers are angry, and California's famously activist politicians are more than happy to take a whack at the utility.

Leading the charge to modernize the energy industry is turning out to be an unenviable position for PG&E. Energy is supposed to be a predictable business. New technology is anything but. The smart meters in question are much like the bulky traditional meters moored to the side or hidden in the basement of most homes, but with a risky new component: digital communication chips.

Using their new chips, the smart meters are supposed to beam information back to PG&E on its customers' energy usage. But since last November, customers have been complaining about unaccountable changes in their bills.

Predictably enough, PG&E refused to own up to any problems. Now it's telling the California senate that up to 23,000 meters were improperly installed, and 50,000 have had problems ranging from transmission to storage of information. Over 1,000 complaints were filed about the meters with the California Public Utilities Commission, and there are several class-action lawsuits against PG&E in the works.

Most of those improper installations aren't a problem for customers, according to PG&E, which said that only eight meters have been found to have "accuracy issues". But PG&E may once again be fudging the case -- on my own post from November alone, there are more than eight comments from angry PG&E customers claiming that their bills skyrocketed after a smart meter was installed.

The catch is that these problems are in no way unusual. PG&E says that faulty information forces it to estimate 0.2 percent of customer bills for homes with the new meters -- but that's compared to 0.8 percent for homes with traditional meters. A certain error rate is inevitable.

The real problem is that PG&E is suddenly changing infrastructure that has been overlooked and ignored by its customers for years, with a new technology that's still in testing. And instead of dealing gracefully with the inevitable difficulties, PG&E is aggressively fighting any rumor of problems, probably in a misguided attempt to keep customers from defrauding it.

But PG&E is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the utility has to comply with California's strict renewable energy requirements, and the smart meters are part of the plan. On the other, its defensive fight is causing customer anger and endangering the entire smart meter program -- already, senator Dean Florez wants to call a moratorium on all new installations. If it wants to continue, PG&E will have to learn how to modernize not just its technology, but its public face.

[Image credit: Jim Orsini / Flickr}