Central Valley

Meter fuss leaves PG&E smarting

Leo Margosian knows that summers get hot in the San Joaquin Valley, and maybe last summer was hotter than most. But could a few more warm days really triple his power consumption?

Margosian's September bill from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. showed that he used more than three times as much electricity as he did a year ago -- although his household habits didn't change. The bill for his condo in central Fresno jumped from $27 to $104.

"That really burns me up," he said. "Our summers are always hot. I don't see how a few days can make that much difference."

The 81-year-old retired investigator for the Fresno County District Attorney's Office is among hundreds of PG&E customers in the Valley who blame the company's new electricity meters for out-of-whack power bills.

PG&E says nothing is wrong with the "SmartMeters," which transmit usage data electronically, avoiding the need for meter readers. It says bills are up because of a hotter summer and higher power prices.

Yet the company is at a loss to explain why some SmartMeter customers like Margosian have seen such enormous spikes in their usage from one year to the next. The utility has promised to test more meters and examine each household that complains to figure out just what's going on.

To support its contention that SmartMeters are not to blame, PG&E points to data that show the average household power usage in Fresno County was only slightly higher during the peak summer months of July and August this year than either of the previous two years. Those two months had more days over 100 degrees than either 2008 or 2007, fueling a higher power demand for air conditioning.

But power consumption last summer was not dramatically out of line with historical trends, the data show. For example, peak consumption was below levels seen in 2005 and 2006, well before the new meters were installed.

What did change was the cost of electricity. Power rates rose -- as much as 23% for heavy users -- thanks to a rate increase that took effect in March.

Moreover, PG&E has field-tested 1,700 meters that have been installed and were the subject of complaints, and none of them has been faulty, company spokesman Jeff Smith said.

Another piece of evidence in the company's favor is a comparison of Fresno County, where 78% of homes now have SmartMeters, and Tracy, a city with a similar climate where none has been installed. The average monthly household power use is very similar in the two communities, PG&E figures show. And Smith said the volume of billing complaints from the two communities also has been similar.

PG&E has installed about 1.7 million of the new electrical meters at homes in its service territory, which stretches from Santa Barbara to Shasta County. They replace the old-style mechanical meters monitored each month by meter readers.

But concern is mounting among customers and state regulators about their accuracy. Last week, the state Public Utilities Commission ordered PG&E to hire independent experts to test and validate the accuracy of SmartMeters and to submit weekly reports on complaints.

Texas Meter & Device -- a company that's tested, calibrated and repaired electrical meters for more than 70 years -- said several factors might be in play. The company is involved in two SmartMeter conversions in Texas.

In some cases, old mechanical meters can run slower than they should, resulting in inaccurately low power readings, said company official Kay Jakubik. That can mean unpleasant surprises for customers when new meters are installed.

"There were lots of complaints in the beginning from customers" of a utility company in north Texas that her company worked with, she said. When the new, more accurate meters were installed, "customers were seeing what their bills should have been," Jakubik said.

Jakubik said software problems could also affect accuracy of the new meters.

Smith said PG&E doesn't believe old, slow meters or software are factors in its conversion.

"The research we've done so far is that it's only in significantly older meters -- 30, 40 or 50 years old -- where we've seen slower meters," Smith said.

And the only programming issue the utility has discovered involves not the meter readings themselves but in how customers can check their own power use over the Internet.

"We had a few isolated instances where the reading we took from the meters -- which was accurate -- was not what was presented on the Web site when customers looked up their accounts," he said. "That has been addressed and rectified."

PG&E is using SmartMeters manufactured by two companies: GE Energy, a subsidiary of General Electric, and Landis+Gyr, a Swiss-based company. Both are among the leading makers of meters being used in conversions across the country. Complaints fielded by PG&E encompass both brands of meters it's using, but after repeated testing, the utility believes they are trustworthy and accurate.

Every meter is tested at the factory, and 10% are tested again by PG&E before they're installed, Smith said.

Smith said the utility will "absolutely" do field tests of meters where customers are worried about accuracy and analyze the household's energy use. "Customers deserve to have confidence in their meter and confidence that the bill they get from PG&E is an accurate representation of the energy used," said Smith.

Of California's major investor-owned utilities, only PG&E has seen a significant number of complaints about readings from new meters, said Andrew Kotch, an information officer with the state Public Utilities Commission. Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, are in the early stages of converting their customers to SmartMeters.

Mindy Spatt of the advocacy organization TURN (Toward Utility Rate Normalization) also said complaints are focused on PG&E's meters.

"Customers feel their usage -- not just the size of the bill attributable to rate hikes -- is being reported as so much higher than at the same time last year," Spatt said. Spatt said the PUC order for independent meter testing is "the first step to getting to the bottom of this mess."

TURN is also pressing for a moratorium on SmartMeter installations until PG&E proves they are working properly.