Get Smart about Energy™

by Bob Spofford – Energy Chair, Sustainable San Rafael

PG&E got approval from the CPUC to start installing Smart meters back in early 2006. They started installing them down around Bakersfield sometime in November of that year. By March of 2008, there were about 350,000 installed. It was around then that the press started picking up on complaints of bills shooting up after smart meters were installed. It’s hard to find any numbers on how many complaints they were receiving at the beginning, but the news stories were always about a few people with clearly outrageous bills, never about large numbers of angry customers. Just 1% of those 350,000 installs would have been 3,500 angry customers, and the news stories don’t feel like even that many. The media didn’t pick up on this issue in any numbers until late ’09.

By April of this year, when the story was hot and the State Senate’s Select Committee on the Smart Grid held a hearing, PG&E documented that 5.5 million smart meters had been installed, and they had records of 43,000 problems (9,000 didn’t communicate back to PG&E, 11,300 meters just didn’t work, 23,000 were installed wrong.) Those 43,000 problems are only 0.8% of the installed base. Technically, that’s an impressive accomplishment: 99.2% of a new technology working right. With smart customer relations (quick admission of error and a substantive, case-by-case problem-solving response, not just PR blather) it could have been seen as such.

Unfortunately, “smart customer relations” and "smart meters" and PG&E don’t appear to live in the same universe. From the very first problems in Bakersfield, PG&E’s response has been to blame the customer. Even at that hearing in Sacramento, a PG&E Sr. VP tried to con the committee by claiming there were only 8 meters that gave bad readings (no doubt literally true) and she had to be badgered before she admitted that the 43,000 other meter-related problems could produce a bad bill. It’s like she learned her job from an 8 year-old kid!

The video of this truly unbelievable performance is at http://tinyurl.com/287pnyg

Two weeks after this debacle, the CPUC ordered PG&E to release the full record of the monthly reports they’ve been filing on the technical progress of the smart meter roll-out. It’s almost 700 pages, but very interesting to skim through. You can get the PDF at http://tinyurl.com/28cjqon. It paints a picture of a very complex system being designed, upgraded through various versions and rolled out all at the same time, almost like it was a software product and the public were beta testers. By the middle of ’08 you see lots of quality problems cropping up with some of the components they were installing, and by the end of the year, the engineers were identifying problems that could cause customer billing issues. (There’s no count of actual customer complaints in the reports.) It all feels rushed and slightly haphazard.

I have heard that a faction within PG&E had argued for much more extensive testing in one city or county before rolling out, but they were overruled. Even with five year’s of hindsight, it’s anyone’s guess whether this would have produced a better result or just run the cost up even higher.

These monthly filings are focused on progress driving the rate of installs up and up. They were up to 4,500 meters a day by March of ’08, and didn’t slow down as the list of serious problems with the equipment was growing. As just one example, in the October ’08 report, they were coping with a very high rate of failing meters from one supplier; a complete shipment of meters from another that had been rejected as defective; the fact that they still hadn’t tested if they could deliver and install some of the networking equipment at the rate they planned; plans to replace one manufacturer’s networking gear that wasn’t reading fast enough with a different manufacturer’s; planning the development of a new generation of the smart meter software to address performance and scalability issues (and that’s only a partial list.)

Still, they kept driving the install rate faster: 1.3 million installed that month and 7,600 new ones going in every day. (Today we’re up to 6 million installed and 10,000 new ones going in per day.)

So yes, asking the CPUC to force a stop long enough to complete a serious study of these issues seems appropriate. On the other hand, my impression is that the worst problems may be past. PG&E’s latest monthly report to the CPUC (covering March 2010) feels a lot less chaotic than the 2008 report discussed above.

 

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