Faced with doubts raised by consumers and some state elected officials late last year, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on Tuesday named a Houston-based energy/utility consulting company to assess the veracity of the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. advanced metering implementation program. The CPUC committed to getting an outside assessment in December (see Power Market Today, Jan. 8).

The Structure Group, an 11-year-old firm involved in global consulting, was selected by the CPUC from among 15 companies or teams that applied for the role of testing and validating meter and billing accuracy of the smart meters being installed by the San Francisco-based combination utility for both retail natural gas and electricity customers. State representatives and consumers last year had raised concerns about the accuracy of the new metering system.

In taking this action, the CPUC stressed that advanced metering systems have been and are being installed throughout California, the nation and world. The contract is estimated to be worth about $1.4 million and last about four months.

The investigation is to begin first concentrating on the San Joaquin Valley area, including its southern region around Bakersfield, CA, where many consumer complaints arose. The work, however, will also evaluate the overall PG&E smart meter program, including sample meter testing from other parts of the PG&E territory. CPUC staff are supposed to receive weekly work updates and interim preliminary reports, summarizing the results of the investigation as it moves along, the CPUC said.

Saying he shared the concerns of consumers and elected officials, CPUC President Michael Peevey hailed the selection of the consulting firm. “Structure is a leading expert on smart meters and downstream billing processes and their personnel will have wide access to PG&E’s systems to conduct their investigation.”

Under the CPUC’s supervision, Structure will examine three major areas:

Smart meters are being installed by each of the major investor-owned utilities in California under strong encouragement from the CPUC, and PG&E is the furthest along in making the multi-year transition. Southern California Edison Co. is authorized to install about 5.3 million new advanced meters, and San Diego Gas and Electric Co. is pursuing the installation of 1.4 million electric and 900,000 gas meters. PG&E’s program involves 5 million electric and 4.2 million gas meters. Southern California Gas Co. has a revised proposal before the CPUC to upgrade its more than 5 million gas meters.

While lawsuits or their threat have emerged since last year and consumer groups in Bakersfield area continue to cry foul, PG&E continues to pursue its companywide replacement program. Some customers’ allegations that the new meters are miscalculating monthly gas and electric bills are “without merit,” a utility spokesperson said earlier this year.

In response, the CPUC got involved near the end of last year, ordering the regulatory staff to contract with a third-party auditing firm on an expedited basis to investigate the situation. Peevey indicated that state red tape on awarding the contract bogged the selection process down.

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