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Some Question IQs of Smart Meters

October 26, 2009
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When are smart meters not so intelligent? According to some of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s (PG&E) customers, who live in California's central valley region where temperatures can hit triple digits, smart meters flunk the test when temperatures rise, air conditioning loads grow and rate increases kick in.

For the giant San Francisco-based combination utility, which is in the middle of a $2 billion five-year effort to replace 10 million electric and natural gas meters, there is no problem with the remotely read advanced metering system; it is working as planned. But the utility in the past year has put into effect two sizable electric rate increases for the three tiers encompassing its largest residential users, which has led to a rash of billing complaints from customers.

The issue has focused on the accuracy of the meters, and customers have tended to blame the new devices.

However, a PG&E utility spokesperson told NGI last Thursday that the utility has thoroughly checked individual meters and the overall metering program and all but a handful of meters are working as they are supposed to. "We probably didn't do a very good job of communicating to our customers the impact of the rate increases," the spokesperson said.

Regulators and utility officials continue to assure customers the advanced meters are the way to go longer term as far as saving money by better managing energy use in homes and businesses.

However, perceptions about the meters can vary, indicating the major utilities in the state, like PG&E, have their work cut out for them to educate customers about the new devices and how they can best use their near-real time, two-way communications capabilities to save energy and money.

With the advanced metering system, PG&E officials have said it will be able to restore power outages more quickly, offer customers more ways to save on their energy bills, reduce operating and energy costs, ease strains on the state's power gird, and lessen impacts on the environment.

PG&E said the advanced metering devices eventually should allow customers to voluntarily enroll in time-of-use pricing options that allow the shifting of loads from high-priced peak-demand hours to lower-priced off-peak times. PG&E expects to virtually phase out its meter-reading function and cut its operating costs. The change-out involves 5.1 million electric meters and 4.2 million natural gas meters in place currently, along with an estimated additional one million gas and electric meters collectively that will be added through new customers over the next five years.

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