Sempra Energy’s Southern California Gas Co. utility is only seven months into a five-year program, but when it finishes installing more than 6 million advanced meter devices for its vast array of residential and small business customers, the nation’s largest gas utility will have finished its largest capital expenditure ever.

The estimated $1.04 billion program to affix battery powered communications devices to existing analog meters took about four years to gain state regulatory approval, even though smart meter changeouts for other electric and gas utility operations in the state have been ongoing for several years. Even SoCalGas’ sister utility in Sempra, San Diego Gas and Electric Co., has nearly completed both electric and gas advanced metering programs.

Last year, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) reaffirmed an earlier approval of the SoCalGas program and agreed with the utility’s request to keep the details of each contract confidential, following a lengthy, sometimes contentious, discussion on the deployment of advanced gas utility metering systems (see Daily GPI, March 23, 2012).

SoCalGas executives say the introduction of the new gas meter devices has been “effective and smooth,” recognizing that for other utilities in California — particularly on the electric side — there has been a lot of push back from a relatively small but nevertheless adamant group of customers who allege that electric smart meters cause health problems (see Daily GPI, Nov. 28, 2011).

As other customers statewide have, SoCalGas customers can decline having the advanced metering device installed on their gas meters.

“We expect advanced meter technology will enhance customer service and safety, increase energy conservation, and improve our operational efficiencies,” said Patrick Lee, SoCalGas senior vice president for Customer Service, Innovation and Business Strategy.

Lee confirmed that the gas advanced metering systems carry none of the features of electric smart meters, such as reading usage of individual appliances, having automatic on and off features, and allowing customers to more directly manage their energy use. The advanced gas devices can be added to meters in 15 minutes and their 20-year batteries will only be activated for a fraction of a second daily to read and send gas usage data to SoCalGas and the individual customer. In reporting that the first 250,000 meters have been equipped with the advanced devices, SoCalGas officials said that the devices will operate less than two minutes total a year to “securely and safely send gas usage data from a customers’ home or business to SoCalGas customer centers.”

After the device is installed, customers are able to begin to “go live” the following day accessing daily usage information via the Internet. “Customers also will enjoy greater privacy and security by no longer having to provide physical access to their property for monthly meter reading,” said a SoCalGas spokesperson, noting that in most cases customers will not have to be present when the devices are installed.

“Advanced meters will help customers monitor and adjust gas usage, helping families and local businesses save energy and money,” said Patrick Petersilia, SoCalGas director of the advanced meter project.

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