Life with my PG&E Smart Meter

Welcome to PG&E’s Smart Meter Program

That is what the informative brochure we received in today’s mail said on the cover.  And it is true the brochure told me how to read both my GE electric and the separate natural gas smart meter.  It told me where to go on the PG&E website online to monitor my usage.   My only complaint is that I am writing this on April 17, 2010 and my smart meters were installed in December 2009—and this is the first communication I have had from my utility about this transformation.

You can see where this is going can’t you?

Utilities are very efficient at managing a capital asset or proceduralizing a routine and then doing it reliably thereafter—that’s what utilities do.  But communicating with customers is sometimes a different story.  Don’t get me wrong, my experience with PG&E is not a bad one and I am not complaining about how my smart meter works, or how I am treated.

I use this as an example, even in my own neutral relationship with my utility, to describe why and how PG&E got in trouble with customers in Bakersfield, Oncor got smacked upside the head in Texas, and why other utilities should learn from their experience.

Take Control with PG&E’s Smart Meter Program

“Smart meter technology gives you more control than ever before over your energy use. You can use information made available by smart meter technology to see how and when you are using energy so you can lower your overall energy bills.”

So far, so good.  The booklet goes on to explain each of the new smart meters and how to read them.  It explains how each smart meter uses a small radio to transmit the reading to a nearby data collector which then send the data to PG&E through a secure wireless network.

How to Track Your Energy Use Online

Now this is where the sucking sounds starts to hit my wallet so I paid special attention to this.  I explained in my post in January 2010 about life on the PG&E budget plan that the level billing policy used by PG&E and virtually every other utility takes average cost pricing to the ultimate delivering a stable bill each month.  Periodically the bill is “trued-up” based upon fuel price changes for natural gas, purchased power costs, rate changes and so forth.

Remember, the hassle for PG&E in Bakersfield was that customers showed up at a PG&E hosted smart meter event where politicians had been invited to celebrate the introduction of smart meters to Bakersfield.  The problem is they showed up waving their PG&E bills and complaining about rate spikes which they blamed on their new smart meters.

In truth, those rate spikes had more to do with the convergence of the CPUC approved rate increase for PG&E that Spring and the hot summer temperatures in the Central Valley causing people to turn on their A/C.  I went online to to see what my actual electric charges were in September 2009—$1000 actual versus my $682 level billing plan bill for the month.  Yikes!

I suspect that is why I got this new Welcome to PG&E’s Smart Meter program brochure NOW and not BEFORE they installed my Smart Meter last year.  Being a good utility they were efficient in getting the equipment installed and operating but clueless about what I thought about it or how other things—like the rate increase the CPUC approved for PG&E that went into effect just before those smart meters started showing up in Bakersfield homes.  Opps!

So I went online and checked out my energy use and my latest bill.  Cool stuff actually.  I could see my usage history and how it had changed month to month.  I could see my tiered rate structure and the impact of rate changes and fuel price changes on my bill.

It turns out that my average monthly energy bill went up $51 as a result of that same rate increase that hit the fan in Bakersfield.  But in my case the change was masked by my level billing plan.  That extra $51 per month just piles up in my account until the level billing plan true up adjusts.  I wish I had known all of this last summer because that online review of my usage and the rate impacts would have warned me to complain more when someone at my house cranked down the A/C last summer—my September electric charges were more than $1000 driven by the combination of high temps and thus higher usage and the rate increase.   Yes I made up some of that in the following months when I didn’t use A/C at all as temps fell seasonally.  But my level billing plan masked all of that.  Obviously, the folks outraged in Bakersfield were not on a level billing plan—but I bet they are now.

Smart Meter Catch 22 for Customers

So now you understand the thorny problem facing state regulators, utilities and most of all customers in the introduction of smart meters and the need to change the rules to get the most benefit out of them. The rational thing for regulators and utilities to do after smart meters are installed would be to move to dynamic pricing to subject customers to the volatility in energy costs to “encourage” us to change our wasteful consumption ways.  But this would really piss us off making the Bakersfield experience look tame by comparison.

Don’t count on the move away from average cost pricing and level bill plans anytime soon

But if we stick with the rate and billing structures we know are we giving up on the benefits of smart meters?  Of course we are!  Will we change our wasteful consumption patterns?  Hell no, why should we?

So if nothing changes on the customer’s end except my bill goes up from all the added costs of smart meters and renewable energy and emissions reduction and all the other aspirations of my politicians and regulators—tell me again WHY we need to spend all this money for smart meters?

Oh, because “ it enables the future of energy management” according to my smart meter brochure.  It gives me “access” to new electric pricing plans. “Some are available today, and more will be available in the future,” the brochure tells me.  It tells me that “in the future” I will be able to get text or email alerts if my wasteful consumption is about to push me into a higher tier in the rate structure so I can change my sinful ways. It tells me that my smart meter technology will result in faster power restoration because my smart meter can tell PG&E— we are not making any money off this sucker right now so get the juice back on fast—and my life will return to normal.

So what?

Smart metering technology is here to stay and that is good.

It offers customers the opportunity to better manage our energy usage and gain the benefits of data feedback on how we are using energy.  But at this stage of the implementation and transformation process, smart meters are one way tools for utilities to reduce costs from meter reading and improve operational efficiencies.  But the upfront capital costs are large and the payback is slow so our rates will go up despite the Federal Government stimulating this program and all of us by its tsunami of spending.

The result is not only will my PG&E bill go up but so will my taxes.  I will know more about my energy consumption so I will be pissed off about it more often.  But average cost pricing and my level billing plan are my friends—and it will be a very cold day in hell before I will willingly give them up.

One more thing—all that online energy use information is the same old monthly consumption data the utility has collected for years—the smart meter did not change anything.  In fact, I could have had the same shocking experience about my September electric usage before my smart meter was installed by going online and checking it.  Did I?  No.

But now I have a smart meter and I ASSUME it has something to do with my increased bill—that is the Bakersfield Effect.  My facts may be WRONG, but my utility bill is still WAY UP so it must be caused by my smart meter.  In Texas, Oncor is doing a monthly side by side assessment of meter readings on a sample of homes uses BOTH old and new meters to show that the smart meter is not to blame for rising utility bills.  Still customers are confused and they get angry when utility bills spike up.

The good news is by the end of 2009 the PG&E’s brochure says 76 million advanced metering devices will have been installed and that number is expected to double by 2013.  That means there will be twice as many people pissed off just in time for the 2012 election!

I love it when a plan comes together—don’t you?