Sunday, September 12, 2010

Post # 39 - Mixed Findings for Pacific Gas and Electric

A recently concluded investigation of the performance of smart meters installed by Pacific Gas & Electric finds that, while the meters are accurately measuring energy use, there are flaws in the way PG&E has handled customer complaints and monitored data transmitted by the new digital meters.

The investigation, conducted by Structure Consulting Group LLC on behalf of the California Public Utilities Commission, was mandated by the CPUC in response to a surge in complaints that blamed digital meters for high bills and other problems. The CPUC issued Structure’s report on September 2, 2010.

The report concludes that while PG&E's digital smart meters are accurate, the utility nonetheless has not done enough to educate customers about the switch. Moreover, the report finds that PG&E has not adequately responded to the full suite of data it gets from the meters.

Structure states that it tested 611 of PG&E's advanced meters, which were made by Landis+Gyr, and found that all met industry standards for accuracy (accuracy to plus or minus 2%, meaning usage must be recorded within a band that is 98% to 102% of the amount actually used). Structure also found the older electromechanical meters that are being replaced are less reliable than new digital meters. Of the 147 old meters tested, accuracy was 96%.

Structure also reviewed 1,378 electric Smart Meter complaints and performed in-depth customer interviews, finding issues with PG&E customer service management and adherence to industry best practices. For example, customer questions regarding Smart Meters and individual customer usage patterns were not effectively addressed by PG&E. In some cases, customers experienced multiple cancelled bills followed by re-billing, which exacerbated customer confusion and frustration.

In addition, customers indicated to Structure that there was a lack of communication and notification from PG&E about their smart meter installation. The report also said that the CPUC's own handling of certain consumer complaints created confusion for the customer when the CPUC deemed the complaint closed even though the customer was still not satisfied with or did not understand PG&E's resolution of their complaint.

At the same time it released Structure’s report, the CPUC issued a press release reflecting Structure’s mixed findings. Thus, CPUC President Michael R. Peevey said that while he was “happy to hear that PG&E's Smart Meters are functioning properly,” he was also “disturbed by PG&E's lack of customer service and responsiveness. [The CPUC] will ensure that PG&E improves their customer service, and we will also continue to improve our own complaint handling processes." Similarly, Commissioner Dian Grueneich said "the report is encouraging in terms of the performance of actual meter hardware. However, I am very concerned about PG&E's performance in terms of industry best practices and how in some of the best practices areas, PG&E's performance has actually declined."

So it appears that while PG&E can point to the potential of its state-of-the-art digital meters, the utility still has a lot of work to do,

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