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PG&E SmartMeter program leaves customers confused

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Customers have complaints about the 7,000 PG&E SmartMeters installed in Los Altos homes.

PG&E representatives unveiled a $2.2 million SmartMeter program at a GreenTown Los Altos meeting Jan. 19, but many attendees left with unanswered questions.

PG&E installed more than 7,000 SmartMeters, a device that allows homeowners to track the amount of energy they use, in Los Altos, with another 18,000 set to go in by April, according to Danny Romero, PG&E’s construction manager.

And the bugs are still being worked out.

“We’re going from a pager to a BlackBerry, that’s how much more advanced (the new SmartMeter system) is,” Romero said.

After sitting through a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation by Romero and Joe Isaacs, small business energy consultant, one Los Altos resident commented, “You haven’t really addressed the issue – your explanation is baffling to me.”

Romero and Isaacs fielded questions about the tiered billing system, which has caused misunderstandings and a public relations snafu in the Central Valley region.

Customer backlash in Bakersfield included a class-action lawsuit spurred by one resident whose bill skyrocketed from $200 a month to $600 after he received his SmartMeter. The customer said PG&E overcharged him. The utilities company, however, claimed his bill was higher in the hot summer months and that rates increased, even if consumption stayed the same.

Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for the Utility Reform Network, said the SmartMeter is “not really a cost-effective technology,” and that her group has heard many complaints from homeowners who claim the meters are faulty and expensive.

Customers have the option of buying add-on software for more precise monitoring of their energy use by appliance. Dubbed the “Home Area Network,” the device won’t be activated for a year or two, when PG&E expects to have an information technology system in place to support it.

Spatt’s San Francisco-based group asked the Public Utilities Commission for a moratorium on SmartMeter installation, a possibility the PUC is exploring.

“We get feedback that customers are confused, and we think PG&E should wait to put these in until the problems are resolved,” she said. “We think PG&E should have a better response than arguing that customers don’t understand the SmartMeters.”

Kacey Fitzpatrick, executive director of GreenTown Los Altos, a grassroots group that advocates for environmental sustainability, said GreenTown “understands why PG&E is installing the SmartMeters.” She attributed the rash of customer complaints to “an unfortunate timing issue, because the installation coincided with a rate increase, which is the real reason customers’ rates increased.”

Fitzpatrick noted that SmartMeters could benefit consumers through their real-time analysis of home energy use, which, according to research, results in a 15 percent or more energy reduction. She touted the device’s remote capabilities, which would enable homeowners, for example, to turn off the air conditioning at a certain time. The meters will also make it easier to pinpoint exactly where power outages originate, Fitzpatrick said, which will save the utility company time and money.

With SmartMeters, consumers can adjust their energy consumption before getting the end-of-the-month bill. The current situation is like pumping gas into your car without knowing how much it costs per gallon, Fitzpatrick said.

PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno said dissatisfied consumers may not understand the tier system of charging for energy use. In tier one, customers pay approximately 11 cents per kilowatt hour, but after exhausting the household baseline allotment, the rate jumps to 46 cents per kilowatt hour in tier five.

“As you use more, your rates go up,” Moreno said.

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