PG&E admits to flaws in some smart meters  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

CNet reports that customer complaints about PG&E's smart meters turned out to be well founded in some cases, with a significant number of meters examined being faulty - PG&E admits to flaws in some smart meters. Hopefully confidence in the meters can be restored quickly and the bad smart grid publicity slowly undone.

California utility Pacific Gas & Electric has released a report acknowledging that thousands of its smart meters have had technical problems and that its customer service has been insufficient.

The company has been the source of ire by customers in California who have complained that their utility bills went up after the two-way digital meters were installed. More than 5 million meters have been installed since 2007.

Prompted by customer complaints over billing accuracy, California regulators ordered PG&E to provide details of its smart-meter program.

On Monday, the utility released four years' worth of project management reports (PDF) and the results of a review that identified "issues" related to wireless communication, data storage, meter installation, and accuracy.

"We've let some of our customers down with the quality of customer service they received. While 99 percent of our SmartMeter devices are installed and working properly, we recognize that even having less than 1 percent of meters with issues is still 50,000 customers, and that's too many," Helen Burt, PG&E senior vice president and chief customer officer, said in a statement.

Burt noted that the 99 percent billing accuracy is better than traditional meters and that smart meters provide more details.

At a press conference Monday, company executives said the number of problems related to inaccurate bills could be as high as 23,000, according to a report in the San Jose Mercury News.

Earth2tech has a post describing the project as overly infrastructure focused and not paying enough attention to customers - PG&E’s Smart Meter Report: A Case Study of Infrastructure Over Customer.
For fun summer beach reading I don’t recommend the 700 page report that PG&E released this week (as ordered by the state regulator the California Public Utilities Commission). Chock full of endless installation graphs, budget details, risk tables and status reports, the report unveils data about the utility’s smart meter deployments over the past three years. Not exactly Game Change.

But the report does offer a smart-grid-brand of high drama, painting a sweeping picture of a utility racing to install millions of smart meters in a short period of time, while facing potential budget overruns, and at the mercy of its vendors. As PG&E acknowledged in its press conference this week (and also said at our Green:Net conference on April 29), the utility responded to these forces for a long time by looking at its smart meter project entirely as an infrastructure play. It was largely only when the press started to report on negative customer reaction that they substantially beefed up customer outreach efforts.

If you haven’t been following the backlash in select locations over smart meters, basically a handful of customers are complaining that recently installed smart meters are responsible for unfair higher bills. The consternation has even resulted in a lawsuit in Bakersfield (PG&E’s territory) as well as one in Dallas (Oncor’s territory). While specific tech problems can easily be dealt with, the greater issue is a lack of customer outreach and an inability of utilities to adequately explain the benefits of smart meters to customers.

PG&E’s contact center received its first customer complaint related to a meter exchange all the way back in June of 2007 (Page 150 of the report). Just a month prior to that, PG&E decided to cancel “the requirement of sending letters to customers in advance of impending installs,” (Page 134). However, several months later, PG&E took one of the only proactive (albeit it minimal) customer outreach moves in this saga and decided in January 2008 (Page 260): “To minimize incidents in the field the team is going to begin sending out pre-deployment letters to both gas and electric customers.” PG&E estimated at the time that giving customers a heads up in this way would cost $495,000.

In mid-2007 PG&E was only installing around 1,000 smart meters per day. But by the end of 2007, it had ramped up to 2,250 smart meter installations per day (Page 185). And by the middle of 2008 (Page 408) PG&E’s daily average smart meter installs bumped up to 10,000 per day.


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