Busted in Bakersfield: PG&E Customer Service Gets a Report Card

PG&E Smart Meters worked but its customer service broke down in Bakersfield—that was the conclusion of  The Structure Group report assessing the embarrassing Bakersfield Effect.

PG&E has installed more than 3.1 million electric and a like 3.1 million gas smart meters across its service territory through the end of June and keeps installing them at a rate of about 176,000 per month.

But when the smart meters were rolled out in Bakersfield, it hit the fan with customers complaining of high utility bills, blaming them on the smart meters and demanding answers. So did politicians and thus so did regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission.  On September 2 2010, The Structure Consulting Group released its independent report evaluating whether the smart meters installed in Bakersfield worked properly and why at least 600 angry customers showed up at customer meetings waving their utility bills.

Structure pulled a sample of customers from the high bill complaint category for interviews on what happened and investigation of how PG&E handled the complaints.  It found:

  • The smart meters were installed just as a heat wave caused increased energy usage.
  • Some customers saw increased bills caused by load changes such as room additions, pool additions, and equipment malfunctions.
  • Utility rate increases compounded the problem causing higher bills just as Smart Meters were being installed.
  • Some customers received bill with the wrong rates applied that were based upon historic premise use assumptions.
  • As utility bills increased so did the demands on PG&E customer service for answers as to why the bill was higher as well as asking for information or help with financial assistance through California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE).
  • PG&E struggled to address customer concerns about smart meters and utility bills.
  • Customer skepticism about the smart meters was not well handled in a timely manner by PG&E customer Service and those interviewed often found complaints unresolved despite records from PG&E and CPUC that the customer agreed with the resolution.
  • PG&E customer complaint resolution did not provide enough information about hourly usage to enable customers with new smart meters to self diagnose their use patterns.
  • Customers interviews said adequate information about the smart meter was not provided on or before installation or customers had problems with the installers.
  • PG&E used field meter readers for an average of 131 days after Smart Meters were installed with about the same error rate as found with the smart meters but most customers with bill complaints were not told of this overlap in meter reading.
  • PG&E’s billing quality control were not stringent enough resulting in multiple bill cancelations and re-billings, which confused customers.

So what?

So installing smart meters correctly turns out to be the easy part.  Changing the utility culture to see customers as customers instead of load turns out to be much harder.  Don’t get me wrong, PG&E is very competent utility.  It just did not anticipate this perfect storm of rate increases, changes in demand, high summer temperatures and smart meter installation at the same time would cause problems.