Those new high-tech electric meters that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has been installing throughout California will be on trial tonight at a state Senate hearing in Fresno.
Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez, D-Shafter, is calling attention to allegations that the new "smart meters" are inaccurate and that the utility's San Joaquin Valley customers are seeing higher bills as a result.
PG&E officials admit that their bills spiked in much of the Valley this summer. But they blame it on a combination of unusually hot weather and a March rate increase that affected the heaviest users.
Florez said he's not convinced.
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"We contend that the meters, until [PG&E] can prove otherwise, are probably not as accurate as they think they are," he said.
PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said almost 2 million of the new meters have been installed so far in the utility's service area.
A main selling point is their ability to send readings back to the utility automatically, eliminating the need for employees to read them. Eventually, Smith said, homeowners could also employ them to manage their own electrical usage better.
As to the accuracy issue, Smith said each meter is tested at the factory, sometimes twice, and PG&E itself tests 10% upon their delivery. Because of the accuracy questions, the utility has also checked 1,700 meters at individual homes in its service area, Smith said.
"We have tested a lot of these meters and thus far we have not found any issues," Smith said.
Tell that to Don Vercellini, who opened his PG&E bill in shock after his new meter was installed this summer.
"A typical bill for us was $300 to $500, in that range," he said. "Then they installed the 'smart meter' and our very first bill was $1,000."
Vercellini said he has worked out a payment plan with PG&E for that $1,000 bill. In the meantime, he said, his bills have dropped back to the prior level without any obvious change in his usage. But he still expects to testify at tonight's hearing.
In response to a previous Florez hearing in Bakersfield as well as other letters and complaints, the state Public Utilities Commission announced last week that it would require testing of the new meters by an independent expert chosen by the commission's staff. But the commission also said the new rates were a likely factor.
Customers pay low rates for a minimal "baseline" amount of power, then progressively higher rates as their use rises through a series of pricing tiers. Smith said the March increases were higher for the higher tiers. In the highest tier, he said, rates rose about 22%, from 36 cents to 44 cents per kilowatt hour.
Similar "smart meters" are being installed to measure gas consumption, but Florez said his office has received no complaints about them to date.
Tonight's hearing will include PG&E and commission officials, along with consumer advocates and aggrieved ratepayers. It begins at 6:30 p.m. in Assembly Room 1036 of the Hugh Burns State Building, 2550 Mariposa Mall, Fresno.