PG&E defends effectiveness of high-tech meters

SACRAMENTO -- Under tough questioning from state lawmakers, a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. executive Monday defended the company's SmartMeters, which have been the subject of hundreds of complaints.

Customers in the Central Valley have alleged that the new high-tech meters -- which eliminate the need for meter readers -- are malfunctioning and causing inflated bills. But Helen Burt, a senior vice president and chief customer officer, said in testimony that only eight of 5.5 million meters have transmitted inaccurate data.

"We've replaced those, and we've resolved all of those issues," she said.

Sen. Dean Florez, who led the Senate hearing, pointed to other data that he said suggested larger problems. PG&E's "electric billing data-collection failure rate" at the end of last year was 1.14% of 1.08 million SmartMeters activated at that time, or about 12,000, according to a report filed with the California Public Utilities Commission.

"This is how we measure you. This is how the public measures you," said Florez, D-Shafter, repeatedly referencing the PUC report.

Burt countered that the rate in the report was misleading because it reflects real-time readings that are not used for bills.

Bills are calculated using readings only at the beginning and end of each billing period. The more frequent readings are used for informational purposes -- to help customers learn more about their use, for instance, according to PG&E.

But the data could eventually become more important if more customers participate in sophisticated billing plans that are more reliant on what time of day electricity is used.

"That's why right now is the time to be asking these questions as these meters are being rolled out," said Paul Clanon, executive director of the Public Utilities Commission, who also testified before the Senate Select Committee on the Smart Grid.

Other utilities are rolling out smart meters, but almost all of the 1,000 complaints received at the PUC since the beginning of 2009 are from PG&E customers, Clanon said.

"We're all very, very struck that these complaints are about PG&E very specifically," he said.

The commission is expected to release a full audit of PG&E's SmartMeter program in August. Florez said he is considering introducing legislation that would place a moratorium on SmartMeter installations until the report is released.

While Monday's hearing focused on utility executives, another hearing in a couple weeks will get SmartMeter vendors on the record, Florez said.

Data from most SmartMeters is transmitted over a wireless network. Although only eight PG&E meters have sent bad data, other problems have popped up in rare instances, such as data-storage issues or incorrectly installed meters, Burt said.

In those cases, PG&E estimates bills based on historical data, just as it does if a meter reader cannot get to a conventional meter because of bad weather or a dog. But overall, only 0.21% of bills from SmartMeters have been estimated -- a better rate than analog meters, according to PG&E.