PG&E’s “Slow Crawl to the Truth” about SmartMeters

“While we have confidence in this [SmartMeter] technology, some of our customers question whether they can have faith in our SmartMeter program, and frankly in PG&E. Restoring this trust is absolutely critical to us.”   —Helen Burt, PG&E SVP and Chief Customer Officer[1]

That was the confession that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News this morning when PG&E’s chief customer officer admitted that despite her assurances that only “a few” of its Smart Meters had problems, its latest monthly report to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) found that 46,376 smart meters had problems, 23,000 gas meters had been installed improperly resulting in inaccurate bills, 11,376 smart meters failed to retain customer usage data (they were broken), and 9,000 could not connect to the communications network.

That may seem like “just a few” when you are installing 10,000 smart meters per day and more than five million of these new devices have been installed to date, but to State Senator Dean Florez, chairman of the California Senate Select Committee on Smart Grid this was part of PG&E’s “slow crawl to the truth.”


If I were Pete Darbee[2], PG&E’s Chairman and CEO, I would not be a happy camper.  Darbee has done a masterful job of leading PG&E’s recovery and transformation from the California energy crisis. So I empathize with him when I read the drip, drip, drip of smart meter problems in the media.

PG&E’s sin in the eyes of Senator Florez and its skeptical customers in Bakersfield and elsewhere is that the utility is not seen as being straight about the facts. In the beginning, the SmartMeter problems were chalked up to growing pains with new technology.  There is a general public acceptance that “stuff happens” with new technology and we accept that this new way of tracking energy use will have some bugs to work out.  Transparency and admitting mistakes when they happen will usually go a long way toward assuring the public that these “bugs” will not bite them.

High Tech GA Culture Confronts Utility Reliability Imperatives

It may turn out that these smart meter problems are the result of the powerful culture differences between tech companies who rush new products to market and then fix the bugs as customers complain about them and utilities who live in a world of perfect grid harmony and reliability where everything must work instantaneously and continuously flawlessly—or else the lights go off.

The lesson in all of this is NOT that smart meters are a dumb idea as some have said.  But that cleantech companies bringing new products to market must live into the values of their customers not the “GA is good enough” attitude of software geeks and gadget makers.

The Customer is Always Right!

Had PG&E said to its irate customers in Bakersfield that hot day when they showed up waving their utility bills—“you know folks, you are right!  These bills cannot be explained until we know the facts. So here’s what we’re going to do.  We’re putting all of you on a level billing plan to protect you from any rate spike until we figure this out.”    Customers would have cheered!  Politicians would have praised PG&E for being responsible and sensitive to customers’ needs!  The CPUC would have said “Atta boy, Pete.”   And not a single additional bad news story would likely have been written since GOOD NEWS is NOT news.

But 46,373 smart meter problems and counting is a drip, drip, drip torture that keeps on causing pain.