Did California Smart Meters Gouge Homeowners?

The California power company Pacific Gas & Electric is receiving a lot of backlash due to the results of its smart meter installations. Smart meters are used to make electronic readings of meters instead of sending out meter-readers; they also are intended to help consumers monitor their energy use.

But homeowners have complained about inaccurate bills, some of which have doubled without warning. State energy regulators are investigating and will test some of the 5.7 million units installed at homes. During the four-to-six-month investigation regulators also will test the devices in a lab.

PG&E has said the soaring bills were caused by high electricity rates and heat waves, although an initial investigation found several recurring problems with the meters and their installation, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The company's response to the complaints has been a lesson for other states and other utilities in how not to handle smart meters. After being ordered by the California Public Utilities Commission to make public all of its documents about smart meters, PG&E posted all 667 pages of their internal documents about the meters without much of an explanation on their site, creating more confusion, according to the Smart Planet blog. In response, State Sen. Majority Leader Dean Florez is pushing for a moratorium on meter installations.

PG&E issued a public apology for the problems on May 10, acknowledging that 1,000 customers have complained and that tens of thousands of the smart meters have contributed to the problem. About 1 percent of its meters have had troubles, according to PG&E.

Here are the smart meter problems outlined by the Chronicle:

  • Installation errors on 23,200 meters. These are mostly on natural gas meters that weren't attached tightly enough and could result in a zero bill to the customer.
  • Data storage affecting 12,736 meters. A software glitch causes the meters to reboot occasionally and lose some data.
  • Communication failures affecting 9,000 meters. The meters send information to the company through a network, and some readings don't always reach the company, so bills are estimated.
  • Measurement errors affecting nine meters. PG&E doesn't know exactly what the glitch is for these particular meters -- they do know that these meters didn't make accurate readings and is investigating.

Until these problems are completely solved, California utility users may want to keep an online utility complaint form handy.
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