Asking Dumb Questions about PG&E's 'Smart' Meters

Mon Mar 28, 2011 11:30am EDT

by Peter Asmus

Last December, I moved into one of the most expensive places in the world to live, the gated community known as "Seadrift" in Stinson Beach, Marin County. I can count Senator Diane Feinstein and Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh as neighbors (though they only sneak out here upon occasion.)

The move ended up being a disaster on many fronts. Frequent internet woes, TV cable glitches, phone problems, and even a flea infestation (that required specialists and steroids), all plagued life in this beautiful spot nestled within nature preserves at the edge of the world.

But these inconveniences pale compare to what happened next, when I opened my first bill for my new home from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), and saw that I allegedly owed $1,700 for electricity consumption that the stretched all the way back to December 2, 2010. When I called up PG&E, I found out that another bill was being sent the very next day that would add another $1,000 to my debt, which had within a very short amount of time ballooned into a $2,700 obligation.

There's plenty of blame to go around, but my situation sums up the disappointing reality of where the super-hyped "smart grid" actually is today, putting aside all of the concerns about wireless radiation, privacy, and data security that have led to blockades in my own backyard. Let's just focus on the bottom line for a moment.

PG&E installed a Silver Springs wireless smart meter last October. The nice lady on the phone at PG&E pointed out that she could see how my energy had spiked upon several days and that she suggested I move. I agreed with her at first, but as I put down the phone I started thinking about how ridiculous this situation was.

The reason my bill had been delayed for so long was that the readings were so abnormally high, so PG&E sent out a live human to check the meter. If I had received a normal bill at the end of December, I could have acted accordingly. My response to PG&E was simple: If the purpose of a smart grid is to give consumers signals so that they can adjust their behaviors and tweak technologies accordingly, then what good did this smart meter do?

The PG&E representative pointed out that if I had been set up to watch my energy usage online, I could have found out about this looming financial catastrophe much sooner. Oh, she then told me that aspect of the smart grid service wasn't set up yet. (An insider at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) told me PG&E is way behind in offering this one aspect of their smart grid roll-out focused on consumers - and not the utility - compared to the state's other utilities.) Of course, if someone like me that is an energy expert can't seem to find the time to be switching devices on and off and then going outside in the pouring rain to try and read a confusing smart meter to try and figure out what's drawing so much juice, who will?

After raising this seemingly logical concern to four successive PG&E managers on the phone as I moved up the management chain, they finally agreed to send somebody out to make sure the meter was working properly. But I was told this person would not be able to help me reduce energy or pinpoint the source of high energy use. An "energy specialist" then called me on a Friday just as she was leaving the office, and told me to call her over the weekend, as she wanted to be in contact with me ASAP. I did call with no response. Five days have passed since she called.

I then turned to the landlord. After moving in, a fellow from a heating and cooling company did drop by to check out why one of the heaters wasn't working. His advice: Don't turn these electric-water heat floorboards on and off too much, because they'll probably break. "Just keep them down low, because once the water is heated, they stay warm." He assured my partner and her daughter that they didn't really use that much electricity anyways. I worried about this advice - knowing how expensive electric heat can be - but life got busier and busier and I told myself we'll just see what the bill looks like to see if what this heating contractor said was actually accurate. In the back of my mind, I kept wondering when that bill would come. But as anyone who has been a writer can attest, these are the sorts of things that fall through the cracks when one is under deadline after deadline after deadline.

Once I got the enormous bill, I spoke to the heating company again. He assured me that the advice of his fellow co-worker was all really relative. "Your landlord should get rid of those dinosaur devices and spend $10,000 to switch to propane." Great advice, but that doesn't help me now, or going forward as the landlord just sunk $50,000 into this place to fix up the exterior and has no interest in fixing a problem that costs her nothing. The same contractor told me that PG&E's smart meters appeared to be having some peculiar problems with these sorts of heating systems, anyways, and that he had heard of a bill over $3,000. For some reason, this news did not make me feel any better.

With this unexpected debt now hanging over my head, I decided it was time to live like an Eskimo and just forget heat. Enough sweaters and caps out to do the trick. I'll look for the long underwear I used to have to wear when I lived In Wisconsin. Winter can't last forever.

Turns out I couldn't turn off one of the electric-water heaters and had to go flip the circuit-breakers to adjust the temperatures. How long had this heater been running at full-blast? PG&E's smart meter certainly wasn't going to be able to tell me.

When PG&E's comes out to check the meter, I was informed they won't be able to tell me why the bills are high or offer me any tips or solutions. Here I am in California, one of the most progressive states in the nation when it comes to energy efficiency and the much hyped "smart grid" and I have no choice but to keeping paying the piper. I just have one dumb question for PG&E: How are these smart meters supposed to help consumers respond to price signals when we don't know even when their bills are going through the roof until months after the fact?

Apparently, PG&E may have broken some laws by not sending me a timely bill. I'll let you all know what happens in a future blog post.

Photo by Jukka Zitting/flickr/Creative Commons

Peter Asmus is an analyst at Pike Research specializing in renewable energy.