PG&E Smart Meter Case is Just the Beginning

Last Updated Nov 20, 2009 9:13 PM EST

It's great to be the first adopter of a hot new technology. That is, until you start using it and become the guinea pig for any unexpected problems that pop up.

That's where Pacific Gas & Electric is right now with its ongoing smart grid rollout, which hopes to eventually hook up millions of consumers in northern California to new meters that can communicate with the utility. A small group of customers in Bakersfield has sued, saying that their bills skyrocketed right after their meters were installed.

The plaintiff's lawyers are trying to escalate the case by bringing in Landis+Gyr, the meter maker, and Silver Spring Networks, which makes the communications chip.

What's going on? It will surely take a thorough investigation and lengthy case to find out. PG&E, of course, said the case has "no merit", and while it's on the defensive the company surely won't help with public efforts to unravel the mystery.

It's not difficult to believe that such a new technology might have its hiccups, though. The suit brings another problem to mind -- the multiplying complaints that wind turbines cause harmful noise pollution. Wind turbine makers and utilities say that there's no problem, but enough people have complained to suggest that there's something going on.

Certainly nobody expected turbines to cause any problem. Many people (including myself) find their swooshing noise somewhat calming, and scientists are so far baffled. And there have been other problems; wind turbines have also unexpectedly disintegrated in high winds.

Such difficulties reveal the challenges facing new technologies. Even the simplest systems will surface difficulties their makers didn't expect. The mad rush to renewable energy often overlooks these growing pains.

They will certainly surface in other areas, though. There are plenty on the way to commercialization: new biofuels, geothermal energy, solar power and more.

What's to be done? Well, if we could send a message back in time to the late 1970s and tell ourselves to keep working on nascent energy technologies, that would be great. But We're stuck with the present, in which we simply need to move quickly, consequences be damned.

But this suit, and others like the wind turbine cases, should serve as warning to investors: expect the unexpected. Murphy's law has a way of showing up at the wrong time.