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SoCalGas Seeks Approval for Shift to Smart Meters

Sempra Energy's Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) last Tuesday filed with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for approval to spend $1.1 billion to upgrade nearly six million meters to advanced devices with two-way communications capabilities.

SoCalGas joins the state's three other private-sector utilities in pursuing advanced metering. Combined, they will have invested more than $5 billion in advanced metering by the time SoCalGas finishes its transformation in 2015. The Los Angeles-based Sempra utility said it could receive regulatory approval in mid-2009. The cost of the project has climbed about $100 million since SoCalGas announced the initiative in April. At that time the program was given a $1 billion price tag. Installation of the meter modules could begin in early 2011, the utility said.

Under the gas utility's plans, about 1,000 jobs would be eliminated during the installation period, 2011-2015, primarily in the meter reading area, which is staffed mostly with part-time personnel. Most of the displacements would be through attrition, SoCalGas said.

Generally, the advanced metering systems offer real-time information to customers and allow management of individual appliance energy use. In talking with financial analysts last April, Debra Reed, CEO for San Diego-based Sempra Energy's two California utilities -- SoCalGas and San Diego Gas and Electric Co. (SDG&E) -- announced that the gas utility transformation to an advanced metering system, along with SDG&E's earlier announced program, was one of four key initiatives for this year.

After some belated questioning of the $1.63 billion estimated program cost, Southern California Edison Co. (SCE) in mid-September received approval from the CPUC to continue with its efforts to upgrade all of the 5.3 million meters on its system by 2012. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is in the second year of its multi-year effort to upgrade more than 10 million gas and electric meters on its system under a program estimated to cost nearly $2 billion.

SoCalGas said the advanced meters will use existing mechanical dials to measure monthly gas consumption, and the system's communications module will collect the data more frequently and make it available to customers more quickly.

The gas-only utility, the nation's largest, said the modules "will lead to significant operating efficiencies and will provide utility customers near real-time usage information that can help them make more informed decisions so they can reduce their use and lower their utility bills."

SoCalGas said the information will be accessible through the Internet and home energy-management systems, among other conduits.

For customers, nearly 85% of the benefits from the advanced meters will come from operational efficiencies that will reduce SoCalGas' costs, the utility said. "Our proposal also supports the state's energy policy focused on increasing energy efficiency and offers other environmental benefits as well," said Anne Shen Smith, the gas utility's senior vice president for customer services.

"The technology will create some new opportunities for employees, though any impact is still years away," Smith said. "We are committed to making the transition as smooth as possible for employees."

By SoCalGas estimates, more than 6 million driving miles will be eliminated annually by the automation, resulting in more than 3,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions being eliminated from vehicles, or the equivalent of taking 1,000 cars off the road in Southern California.

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