An independent investigation concluded Thursday that advanced meters deployed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) meet industry standards for accuracy. However, the utility still has not regained the confidence of some customers. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) will be reviewing PG&E's effort to re-double its consumer education and information programs on the new meters.
Before the CPUC received the report from The Structure Group, nearly a dozen PG&E customers, many with medical or research backgrounds, expressed strong concerns about health-related risks they associate with the advanced metering devices. Some called for a moratorium on the push to change all of the utility electric and gas meters in the state until a full analysis can be made of the health issues.
Following the release of the report, PG&E held a briefing for news media in which senior executives for customer service and public affairs admitted that the San Francisco utility has made mistakes in its more than three-year effort to install the meters, and they pledged new efforts to win back the trust of customers. PG&E also announced the formation of a smart meter technical advisory panel, including technical representatives from the CPUC and California Energy Commission (CEC).
The CPUC said the report confirmed the accuracy of the meters and associated software/billing systems but found that "multiple factors" appear to have contributed to a spike in consumer unrest against PG&E, noting they appeared to be related to the utility's customer service practices.
CPUC President Michael Peevey noted that there have been practically no complaints from the customers of the state's other two major utilities now installing smart meters -- San Diego Gas and Electric Co. and Southern California Edison Co. -- while complaints continue to pour in from PG&E customers.
At the end of March, facing growing doubts raised by consumers and some state legislators, the CPUC named the Houston-based consulting firm to assess the accuracy of PG&E's advanced metering program (see Daily GPI, April 1).
The Structure Group, an 11-year-old firm involved in global consulting, was selected from among 15 companies or teams that applied for the job.
What was released in the 400-page report is a verification that the technology is accurate, but it does not address the health-related issues that have surfaced since the CPUC contracted for the investigation. Peevey noted that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had completed numerous studies on the health concerns related to radio frequencies because of an issue raised with cell phones. The smart meters use a similar technology and they have been specifically designated as safe by the FCC, Peevey said.
With some consumers and local government activists calling for moratoriums on the new meter installations in some specific cities served by PG&E, the utility has said it is working with local governments on educational and information programs, and in any event, it is the CPUC -- not local government -- that has authority over the use of advanced meters.
Structure independently tested more than 750 smart meters and 147 electromechanical meters, and among the smart devices had 100% passage of tests, compared 95.97% of the old meters. "In laboratory testing, field meter testing and end-to-end system testing, Structure determined that all of the tested smart meters and systems were working accurately and that customer billing matched expected results," a CPUC spokesperson said.
"I am happy to hear that PG&E's smart meters are functioning properly but disturbed by PG&E's lack of customer service and responsiveness," said Peevey, adding that the advanced meters are now being installed nationwide and some 38 million were now in operation.
Commissioner Nancy Ryan said that besides offering verification on PG&E's meters, the Structure report "makes clear that the transition to a smart grid is not just a technological event. Consumers won't fully realize the many potential benefits of smart meters and other grid upgrades unless utilities and regulators place more emphasis on the human side of the equation."
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