By Becca Freed

In the past couple of weeks, PG&E has begun installing so-called SmartMeters on Berkeley residences.  One showed up at my house even before PG&E’s letter arrived announcing the retrofit.

SmartMeters are supposed to let consumers monitor their household energy consumption, with reports on hourly electricity use and daily gas use. Presumably this will encourage people to conserve and shift their usage to off-peak times. PG&E presents this as a way for ratepayers to become more informed and therefore empowered to manage their own energy costs.

However, many people who have received the SmartMeters have seen their utility bills balloon, although their energy-use patterns did not change. Some have had faulty meters replaced, but not without hassles and victim-blaming from PG&E.  Last spring a Bakersfield resident discovered that his online power usage report was fabricated, showing high electricity use during a six-hour blackout.

A Web search on the term “faulty smart meter” turned up reports of problems in Oregon, Ontario, Canada, and Australia.

Bakersfield was one of the first towns in California to have the SmartMeters rolled out, starting in 2007, and residents there have been hard hit by bigger bills. Late last year a class-action lawsuit was filed against PG&E claiming that, among other things, it knowingly installed faulty meters. The suit has been joined by more than 500 people.

For its part, PG&E says the huge bills that Central Valley ratepayers saw last summer are due to hotter-than-usual temperatures and a rate increase, not flawed technology. Green-tech advocates also say that smart meter technology is sound, but PG&E could have done a much better job of communicating with customers about the change and fostering trust.

Personally, I find it a bit hard to trust in changes that my local utility monopoly tells me are “good for me.” I remember the energy deregulation of the late ’90s, which was supposed to empower consumer choice and foster conservation (sound familiar?). Instead, it created conditions that allowed the likes of Enron to rape California citizens.  I also remember bailing out PG&E in 2003 to the tune of billions of dollars as a result of the deregulation fiasco.

Hang onto your old power bills: You’ll want them for comparison after your SmartMeter is installed.

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  1. I’ve had a smart meter on my home for the last five or six months. I wasn’t really given a choice about it, but it doesn’t bother me. Being able to accurately track my power usage has been kind of nice.

    The only thing that really bothers me is the loss of jobs for meter readers. I know it’s not glamorous work, but we need all the jobs we can get these days.

  2. I wondered myself: why assume that higher bills are some sort of scam using the new meters rather than that the old meters were inaccurate?

  3. I don’t know about Smartmeter yet. I don’t have one. But, I did have an older PGE meter and my usage was ridicules. I was running an average bill of $350 month and an average use of 1294 KW /mo.

    When I received my bill last December for Nov 15 to Dec 15th it said I owed $785.00 Two year before that I got a bill that said I owed $1200.00 in January.

    This time I asked PGE to check my meter which they did after the third request – although reluctantly. 99% of the time I was told the meters were perfectly fine and the customer’s usage was the problem.

    They came out and checked my meter on Jan 30 2010. The technician said it checked out fine – No problems. He ran a test that sucked 1 KW through my meter and my meter said I used 1 KW. A “Perfect reading” I was told. Something was apparently wrong but it wasn’t my meter the tech told me.
    The tech however stated that I had an older meter and a newer meter they had would allow me to check my actual usage about every 40 seconds easily and digitally. This might help me locate my problem I was told.

    My Jan 15 to Feb 15th bill arrived reading 1106 KW used.
    One half of that bill was with the old meter and 1/2 with the new meter.
    My March bill with the new meter dropped way down. But the month of March is always lower so I didn’t pay much attention to it.

    However, all of my bills since March have been 30 to 65% lower with an average drop of 45% from last year.

    Mar 1299 Apr 988 May 1016 Jun 1080 Jul 1267 Aug 1434 Sept 1258 Oct 1434

    Mar 756 Apr 738 May 719 June 763 July 613 Aug 632 Sept 690 Oct 599 proj.

    Thanks to the new meter I now know what I am really using and am now being billed correctly.

    If my meter was NOT faulty why is the new meter registering so much “less” electrical use? I had an independent use check done and it matches the new meter. Wish I had done that on the old meter instead of trusting PGE.

    The lesson is that a PGE meters can be bad even if their tech say it is not. The fact is, the Smartmeters seem to be having the same problems in some cases. Can PGE actually check the meters to find out if they are faulty? I don’t know. Based on my experience apparently not.

    From what I can tell, I over paid PGE around $3200 in 2009 and $2300 in 2008. I don’t know how much the year or years before that, since I don’t know how long my meter has been faulty. I just don’t have the records to go back and check when my usage was about what it is today.

  4. Sun Light & Power installed a 24 Panel PV system with battery backup for us about 4 years ago, and we’ve had Time Of Use metering on the Electric awhile.

    I use numbers to graph the monthly usage.

    We’re conservative neither in our politics nor our use of electricity, so we’ve not “zeroed” out yet. The biggest and simplest thing we did to reduce the number of electrons we eat was to switch almost all our bulbs to CF.

  5. Berkeley’s nearly 1000 solar roofs are relevant here. Many if not most are now fitted with a different sort of time-of-use meter that actually does charge (or credit) differently depending on when electrical gear is used.

    That’s a good thing for us Berkeley solar-roofers, because in the cool east bay we avoid the need for running air conditioning on summer afternoons, when our generation is at its maximum and PG&E’s demand is greatest. So if the solar installation is sized to generate approximately what you have been using over the course of a year, you wind up paying for “winter power” at off-peak rates beginning under 9 cents a kilowatt-hour while getting paid for excess peak “summer power” at 30 cents or more, and probably generate a net credit. The recent enactment of AB920 means that PG&E now must pay its residential customers for excess power generated, so that solar roofs now can be even more attractive economically.

    Not everyone is rightly situated for solar, and not everyone can find an affordable financial path today. Berkeley’s “innovative” FIRST plan, an interesting option, has not yet progressed beyond proof-of-concept as bank funding still proves elusive.

    However, solar roof or not, all of us will be paying more attention to when we use electrical power. Perhaps a bit disorienting at first, it soon becomes as routine as recycling — now an automatic part of most of our lives.

  6. Becca: quite right.

    In general, saying more concisely what I said to TN:

    Differential pricing should be available to large buyers for *surplus* green generating capacity, not for all power across the board. (Otherwise it’s regressive.) Differential pricing makes socially just sense for managing surplus, not for rationing.

    (And: differential pricing for *surplus* electricity and gas most decidedly does *not* require universal installation of so-called “smart-meters”. There is no engineering requirement to justify that *at all*. It’s just plain wrong.)

  7. TN,

    PG&E has less supply capacity (and maybe, I’m not sure, less transmission capacity) than there is market demand for. That is why we have brown-outs.

    At peak demand, the least green generation facilities do indeed have to be fired up, at least per the news reports. In the short term, if not the long term, finding a way to reduce the amount of peak demand is “green” – we agree on that much. I think we also agree that increasing green generation capacity is “green”. Yes?

    Now, suppose that tomorrow we had differential pricing wherein budget constrained domestic consumers were effectively forced to reduce their consumption during peak demand periods (or else pay more to subsist than they can really afford). Do you understand what hardship this imposes on those consumers?

    Nevertheless, there will remain *plenty* of domestic and commercial consumers who will *buy up the slack*. Brown-outs may become less frequent, but the total amount of *generation* by the least green methods will hold steady. Do you have *any* evidence to the contrary? That is how commodity markets usually work. Shortages don’t reduce consumption — a saturation of supply by demand just raises the price while some with demand go hungry.

    In other words, PG&E won’t through some magic of differential, demand-based pricing generate less power using non-green methods – they’ll simply get more money for that power. But consider who will be paying what shares of that additional money.

    PG&E getting more money for that non-green, peak-demand power is, in and of itself, a *good thing*, of course, assuming that the profit is reinvested in building out green generation capacity.

    What is *not* a good thing, in my view, is the regressive distribution of where that higher profit will come from. A high-tech factory has a lot of flexibility with regard to scheduling their electricity consumption. The average poverty-level household does not. That places us in the position where the factories and offices will both pay a disproportionately low percentage of the cost of building out green generation *and* they will drive up the price of off-peak consumption.

    Get it?

    As for Rosenfield, my initial impression is that *most* of his work in this area has recommended and noted examples of reducing demand by offering domestic consumers reasonable substitutes for earlier products that help “pay for themselves” by saving consumers money by reducing their energy usage. A consumer saves money if, when they replace their water heater, they replace it with a comparably priced but more energy efficient model. A consumer saves money if, when they replace a light bulb, they replace it with a more efficient bulb. (All else being equal, of course). That’s great.

    He also (as I understand it) has a notion that “smart appliances” can conspire with a “smart grid” to automagically schedule their consumption. Instead of setting your air conditioner for 68 degrees you set it for “not below 68 and not more than 75 and not more than $X per hour” and it talks to your meter and tries to optimize for 68 degrees.

    Swell notion in the abstract – sorta. He has the plain wrong idea there in practice:

    First of all, all that capital equipment replacement or upgrade ain’t gonna happen in the next decade. Maybe longer.

    Second of all, none of that tech – not one bit of it – even if it could be magically ubiquitous by tomorrow – requires a “smart meter”. The “smart meter” is a subterfuge. It’s utter BS.

    All that that smart appliance stuff requires — *ALL* that it requires — is a *uniform* power rate across all customers combined with a *broadcast* (such as a real-time updated web page) of the current price. For my icebox to know intelligently how to minimize its cost of operation while still making temperature guarantees it needs to know the moment to moment price of power. Period. It doesn’t need to report anything back to PG&E, not even indirectly via a “smart meter”.

    Moreover, if instead of spot-pricing electricity moment-to-moment for all consumers, PG&E were to give all consumers a flat rate and big consumers a discount on surplus green capacity – then we would have a green solution that helped fund development of green capacity yet which was not regressive.

    That is, instead of *raising* the moment-to-moment price of all capacity, we should instead (for the rare but large consumers who care) *discount* the moment-to-moment price of *surplus* green capacity.

    See what I’m saying?

  8. I wonder what will happen to peak loads, and therefore rates, when we all learn to run large appliances at night. And are my neighbors going to complain about the noise?

  9. TL:

    I don’t see how using electric dryers only at night is any more regressive than what exists now. With TOD (time of day) pricing, using electricity during the day will become more expensive as I think it should. It costs more to generate and proportionately produces more pollution.

    The carbon footprint of electricity generated to meet peak demand is higher than for the base load because less efficient gas fired generators are used to generate it. Base loads are met using a combination of hydro, nuclear and more efficient fossile fuel plants. Renewable energy still makes up a very small proportion of production.

    As to the cumulative effect of small electric appliances, I refer you to the work of Prof Arthur Rosenfeld and his group at the Lawrence Berkeley Labs. I can’t recall the numbers exactly but they are eyepopping. (I believe that there was an earlier posting regarding the professor on this blog.)

  10. TN,

    Advice like “use your clothes dryer only at night” is regressive (costs more for a larger percentage of poor people than for rich, regardless of electricity prices at any time of day).

    The point of smart meters is to economically *enforce* such advice against small consumers rather than building out generating capacity or findings usage reductions by less regressive means.

    Note that advice like “use your dryers at night” does *nothing* to reduce carbon footprints – zilch – in nearly all circumstances. It’s *not* a “green” act. It’s an act that helps PG&E make more money and that’s about all.

    Trickle currents on remote controlled appliances are a different matter. There is some “green” benefit for cultivating the habit of cutting devices that don’t strictly need it from power. But how large? You care about those issues so, not to impose in an unfriendly way but if you are into it — can you give some per-household quantitative stats to give us a sense of the individual scale of the problem? My hypothesis is that building out green power generation is vastly more important than getting people to switch off the power to their TV and that getting everyone to switch off the power to their TV will have a measurable but not especially helpful impact.

    Power generation “miracles” (or, at least, a lot of hard work) are necessary if we are to preserve in the coming decades anything even vaguely resembling our lifestyle vis a vis electricity consumption. The biggest problems are modes of generation and transmission lossage. Those are the problems we should focus on.

  11. Becca,

    There are many ways that residential users can time-shift their use of power.

    Turn off your entertainment systems (via a surge protector type power strip) when you’re not going to be using them. Modern TVs and audio systems draw power when they are “off.” Anything that is controllable with a remote is drawing power even when turned “off.” And some of us have very elaborate, multi-component systems which all draw power. If you have equipment like programmable DVRs which need to be on even when you’re not home, put it and associated equiptment on a separate power strip.

    Rechargeable battery powered appliances can be charged overnight. Pull all those ugly little bugs (power supplies) out of the plugs or put them on a power strip. Turn the power strips off except when charging. Those power supplies draw power even when not in use if they are plugged in. We seem to have ever more rechargeable, cordless appliances including lawnmowers, vacuum cleaners and smaller kitchen appliances. I’ve gotten rid of all our rechargeables except for our cell phones. I buy only corded electrical appliances.

    Use your clothes dryer only at night. Anything with a heavy duty motor draws a lot of power. Electric dryers draw even more power to heat the air.

    Most of us living in Berkeley most likely don’t have air conditioners which drive the summer peak residential day time use of electricity. So the power company telling us to turn up the thermostat during a heat wave doesn’t apply to us. And in this age, for many of us, turning off our computer systems during the day is not an option. Our refrigerator-freezers are probably the single biggest users of power in the home in that they must always be on and are on more when it is warmer. So, in that sense, our ability to time shift is limited. But it is possible to do a lot more than is commonly done.

  12. Those are all good points, Thomas, and put more succinctly than I could have. (I’ve never figured out how to read any of the meters, though.)

    I really agree that this seems like a technology more appropriate to large businesses that’s being used to impose de facto rate increases on home users. There is a limit to the amount that individuals can time-shift their power use, particularly home-bound people.

  13. I don’t find a link to it after some searching but the S.F. Chronicle did a *somewhat* recent story about the “faulty meter” complaints.

    PG&E was asserting that those complaining are, generally speaking, mistaken. The examples included someone who complained that their bill doubled or tripled after the smart meter was installed while failing to notice that the bill included over-due amounts from the previous 1 or 2 months for payments never received. The Chron went looking for convincing victims of actual meter failure and, at least in their attempts, failed to find any.

    My top 5 complaints about the new meters are:

    1) Because they contain processors rather than lower tech components, they are less robust.

    2) Because they implement the ability for PG&E to turn off your electricity by remote control, they are vulnerable to software and administrative errors at PG&E and are very likely vulnerable to low-cost, high-payoff malicious hacking by third parties.

    3) Because of the detailed collection of data and its centralization on a web site, they intrude upon privacy.

    4) I miss the little spinning wheel gizmo of the old-style meters which allowed me, at a glance, to get a good sense of my rate of power consumption relative to various baselines. The displays on these things are, as someone (Mr. Romney?) once said at a big concert, “not specifically good”.

    5) PG&E’s main motive for installing these meters is ultimately to implement time-of-day pricing differentials, I think this is a total screw for consumers. Differential pricing is appropriate for large industrial customers who would generally happily accept it and work with it. In the home, there is less natural flexibility in adapting the scheduling of power use according to the current spot market. Differential pricing is also an (undesirable) substitute for improvements to supply. The meters, installed on homes, give PG&E perfect economic incentive to either neglect infrastructure or to pay for new infrastructure through regressively priced rates. Domestic consumers will eventually see nasty rate increases *not* because the meters are faulty but because they work exactly as intended.

  14. I have been monitoring my smart meter daily since it was installed five weeks ago. So far the meter appears accurate given the time of year and my daily usage patterns. There is no sudden change in comparison to the previous seven years of electrical bills. In addition, I am learning more about my daily usage: for example, how much more power my TV draws than I realized. No complaints here.

    And as far as reports of ballooning bills with the new meters, there exists the possibility that crufty decades-old analog meters were consistently under-metering customers. The new accurate meter comes in, and suddenly the bill goes up.