A larger number of PG&E’s digital Smart Meters may be inaccurate than the company has previously stated, according to documents provided to Patch by a PG&E employee.
Inaccurate meters can result in estimated customer bills that are either higher or lower than they would be otherwise. PG&E has maintained approximately 0.14 percent of all electric bills from the Smart Meters have to be estimated due to errors in the meters, compared with 2.13 percent of electric bills that must be estimated from older traditional analog meters. (According to PG&E records 0.05 percent of gas Smart Meters result in estimated bills, compared with 0.82 percent of traditional gas meters.)
‘The number of estimated bills has gone down actually,” said PG&E External Communications Manager Jeff Smith.
But, a list of Smart Meters that weren’t working out of the Napa/Solano PG&E office back in December shows close to 300 meters in that area that resulted in estimated bills and a number of the meters needing to be replaced. According to the PG&E meter reader who provided the documents, that list given to Patch was just one-third of the total list of non-working Smart Meters for that region. The PG&E employee did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation.
For comparison, by March 4, 2011 (when more Smart Meters had been installed) Napa County had a total of 55,078 electric Smart Meters installed. This suggests the percentage of non-working meters in the area is significantly higher than the .14 percent of estimated bills maintained by PG&E.
Smart Meters use a combination of radio and cellular mesh technology to transmit usage data back to PG&E.
The list was provided as part of a policy to meter readers daily out of the Napa/Solano PG&E office, said the source. Meter readers rely on hand-held devices as they go on their routes that show them information about the meters and into which they must input the meter data. When a meter reader came upon a meter that was not entered into their hand-held device, they went through a process known as “lost and found” to flag the meter. However, said the PG&E employee, meter readers were told that when they went through the lost and found process for a Smart Meter that was known to be defective it disrupted the estimated billing process. So, meter readers were provided with these lists of known non-working Smart Meters and were told to check the list for meters on their routes and to skip those meters that appeared on the list.
Meter readers continue to read Smart Meters for a period of time after their installation in order to insure the device is communicating the data back to PG&E accurately.
On the list of known defective meters, one route shows nine meters listed, another shows six. On average, a route consists of a few hundred meters and a reader reads approximately 500 meters in a day, though with the decrease of meter readers some employees will read two routes or combined routes in a day now.
PG&E internal records for the individual addresses on the list show that a number of the Smart Meters that were installed in early 2010 had to be replaced with different Smart Meters in the middle of last year.
For example, one address on the list in the city of Napa had its electric Smart Meter installed on Feb. 3, 2010. That meter was removed and replaced with a different Smart Meter on June 8, 2010. That same address and meter ID number, though, required a usage estimate, resulting in an estimated bill, on Aug. 24, 2010, according to PG&E’s records.
Additional reports from Marin show similar problems.
Meter readers in Marin are asked to fill out a Daily Missed Meter report when they return to the office for any meters they were unable to read. (The employee who provided the information said they were told by PG&E to no longer enter defective meters into their handheld devices, but to submit these paper forms, so as not to disrupt the billing system.) Daily Missed Meter reports can cover a wide variety of problems – inability to find the meter, gate locked, meter missing, or defective meters with blank screens, incorrect programming or the same numbers flashing on the screen. On the missed meter reports provided to Patch, it shows that a number of those defective meters were Smart Meters that later resulted in estimated usage and bills for the customers.
In one meter reader’s daily report, there are five Smart Meters that had to be estimated instead of read; in another there are four, throughout Marin. The employee who provided the documents said he once had four defective Smart Meters out of 100 that he read on a route.
Typically, customers are unaware that their bills are being estimated.
One resident in Mill Valley, who did not want to be named, had a meter listed as having problems and resulting in estimated bills. She had no idea and simply paid whatever bill came to her house. “You’d think they’d tell me,” she said
Even by PG&E’s admission there are a variety of problems that can arise from the digital meters. Some of those problems may not be captured in estimated bills, said Smith. Installer error or the communications module on the meter not sending a signal back to PG&E are two types of problems, he said. In some cases those meters or the communications module on the meter must be replaced. “But, it is an extremely small number,” said Smith.
Wellington Energy, which did the installation of the meters, was offered bonuses for installing more meters and was criticized early on for rushing the job, but Smith said after early issues, PG&E worked with the contractors to insure correct installation.
PG&E would not respond to the allegations stemming from the paperwork provided to Patch, citing the fact that it was unverified and likely came from a disgruntled employee.
“We have no additional comments to add, given we’re unable to verify it’s authenticity,” said Smith.
“It certainly raises more questions about the program,” said Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network (TURN).
PG&E recently reported that 1,544 of its Smart Meters were experiencing a defect that caused the meters to run fast in hot weather. The defective meters were primarily in the Central Valley around Fresno and would all be replaced. Affected customers will be issued a refund where necessary. The average refund is $40, said PG&E, and customers affected would also get a $25 credit.
The defective meters were made by Landis + Gyr, who manufactured 2.1 million of the electric meters for PG&E. The utility said the problem did not extend to the other 2 million electric meters manufactured by General Electric.
The problem was identified by the data the meters themselves generate. That data is analyzed regularly and when potential issues were noted, the utility went to the manufacturer and asked them to determine what was defective.
A California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) judge also ruled earlier this month in favor of a Mountain View couple that was able to prove their PG&E Smart Meter had been drastically overbilling them, was triggering their motion detector light, and ordered PG&E to issue a $1,400 refund.
The couple, Vera Sokolova and Alexei Kacharovsky, filed a formal complaint with the CPUC in March 2010. PG&E tested their meter, found it to be working accurately, but replaced it in June 2010 after it stopped transmitting data. The couple’s new meter was actually part of a program PG&E runs to install a traditional meter next to a Smart Meter and show the results weekly online in a side-by-side test.
In September, the second Smart Meter had also stopped transmitting data and PG&E wanted to replace it with another, but the couple refused and took the case to the CPUC.
The judge’s decision will come to the CPUC board on May 26 for final approval.
PG&E and the CPUC have continued to point to an independent report conducted last year by the Structure Group and commissioned by the CPUC following over 600 complaints about accuracy that came primarily out of the Bakersfield area. The report found 100 percent of the meters to be working accurately.
However, of the 613 meters the Structure Group chose to test, two were malfunctioning or had installation errors and so were simply excluded from the test and not captured in the data. Additionally, one had a zero read, which PG&E said in the report was a data storage issue that could result in a lower bill; they began replacement of the meters that had this acknowledged problem in March 2010.
In the report, six meters were also tested for extreme hot and cold conditions. In those tests, one of the six meters was outside the American National Standards Institute standards when at 122 degrees Fahrenheit for an extended period of time, but it was within CPUC standards and was not noted as a failure.
Smith said any questions about the report would have to be directed to the Structure Group and could not be answered by PG&E.
Calls made during business hours to The Structure Group, however, went straight to automated voicemail and requests for clarification were not returned.
“At the very least, this shows the Structure report was inadequate and wasn’t in-depth enough,” said Toney.