Empowering Customers with SmartMeter™ Technology

Photo: Linda Cicero

PG&E’s SmartMeter™ program is an integral part of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC)-approved effort to upgrade California’s energy grid.

The SmartMeter™ system integrates wireless communications with electric and gas metering technology, enabling new tools to help customers learn more about their energy use, understand how their use affects their bills and take steps to save energy and money.

By the end of 2010, PG&E had replaced more than seven million analog gas and electric meters throughout our service area with SmartMeter™ devices, well on our way to the approximately 10 million meters planned. This represents North America’s largest deployment of automated metering infrastructure.

SmartMeter Installations (cumulative)

PG&E’s SmartMeter™ program is not only a critical part of California’s statewide policy to better manage energy; it is also a key foundation for the Smart Grid and a powerful tool for our customers. Because SmartMeter™ technology “reads” energy usage every day, as compared to traditional meters’ monthly “reads,” customers have access to more frequent information about their energy use, which in turn enables them to better manage their energy consumption and costs.

The system’s wireless capability also enables us to provide more reliable service, making it possible to restore power faster after a disruption or reconnect a customer after a move to a new residence.

Questions and concerns are a natural part of any technology shift. In 2010, PG&E’s SmartMeter™ upgrade caused some customers to raise concerns about the accuracy and the safety of their SmartMeter™ devices. In both instances, independent reviews by government agencies and experts confirmed that SmartMeter™ devices are both accurate and safe.

As the first utility to undertake a large-scale rollout of meters enabled with SmartMeter™ technology, PG&E learned—and applied—valuable lessons. Chief among these lessons is the need for deep customer engagement. By working more closely with our customers, we have made significant strides in helping them share our confidence in the technology and take full advantage of its many benefits.

Addressing Customer Health Concerns

The Federal Communications Commission has deemed the low-level radio frequency on which PG&E’s SmartMeter™ devices rely to be completely safe. In California, a 2011 independent study by the California Council on Science and Technology found that SmartMeter™ devices meet every known health standard. In fact, the radio frequency from an electric meter enabled with SmartMeter™ technology is roughly one one-thousandth that of a typical cell phone.

Nevertheless, some of our customers remain concerned about the radio frequency signals from SmartMeter™ devices. To address their concerns, PG&E submitted an “opt-out” proposal to the CPUC in early 2011. For customers who want an alternative to PG&E’s standard wireless SmartMeter™ upgrade, PG&E proposes to turn off the communications radios in their SmartMeter™ gas and electric meters, removing the meters from the greater Smart Grid. PG&E has proposed that customers who choose this “radio-off” option would assume the associated costs, including manual meter reading. In the interim, PG&E has offered to delay the installations of those customers who desire an alternative.

Confirming the Accuracy of SmartMeter™ Technology

In 2009, some customers in the San Joaquin Valley area raised concerns about whether their new SmartMeter™ devices had caused increases in their monthly energy bills. PG&E took these and other customer concerns seriously and welcomed the CPUC’s independent investigation into the accuracy of SmartMeter™ devices in April 2010.

The CPUC hired The Structure Group to independently assess PG&E’s SmartMeter™ program using meter testing, end-to-end system testing, an evaluation of high bill complaints and an evaluation of PG&E’s SmartMeter™ deployment as compared to industry best practices. PG&E cooperated fully in the assessment and provided information and interviews as Structure requested.

The culmination of that extensive assessment was The Structure Group’s report, issued in September 2010, which found that PG&E’s SmartMeter™ technology is consistent with industry standards and accurate from a metering and billing perspective. Structure was also critical of PG&E, noting that issues arose because the Utility took inadequate steps to notify customers about the meter installations, failed to address their concerns about new technology and lacked stringent bill quality control.

Since then, PG&E has taken a number of steps to address these customer concerns, including:

  1. Calling all customers who received an estimated bill for two billing cycles to explain the reasons for the bill estimate and facilitate payment arrangements.
  2. Creating a dedicated SmartMeter™ program customer call center and adding 165 additional customer service representatives to address customer questions about the meters and billing.
  3. Conducting face-to-face community events. By the end of 2010, PG&E had conducted approximately 100 community events and meetings throughout its service area. The SmartMeter™ Mobile Tour, which began in August 2010, includes hands-on features to convey the benefits of SmartMeter™ technology and appears at large public community events such as state fairs and baseball games.
  4. Launching the “See Your Power” campaign (ads and online) featuring actual PG&E customers from across our service area, including Bakersfield, Woodland, Sacramento and Daly City. In commercials, these customers discuss how they use their SmartMeter™ devices to track energy, showing customers how they can directly benefit from the new meters.
  5. Engaging our customers, as well as key regulators and state and local officials.

A Cornerstone of the Smart Grid

SmartMeter™ technology is the indispensable cornerstone of the Smart Grid—which will ultimately empower customers and utilities to manage energy use more intelligently and efficiently. It will help customers increase their control over their energy costs, and it will allow for even greater integration of electric vehicles and renewable energy into the electric grid.

Given our investment in SmartMeter™ technology, stakeholders are looking for PG&E to find ways to innovate the utility business model and provide customers with broader choices for rates, products and services—and that is exactly what we are working to do.

Because SmartMeter™ devices measure energy usage on a frequent basis, customers can now keep a closer eye on their usage and take steps to save energy and money. Customers are already taking advantage of the technology in ways that were not possible with analog meters. In 2010, PG&E created Energy Alerts, a new program for our four million residential electric customers. These alerts enable customers to receive phone, text or email messages when they are about to use energy at a level that could increase their rates and therefore their bills. With that information, the customer can take steps, in near real time, to control their usage and contain their costs.

Energy Alerts is just the beginning of a whole new suite of programs, designed to save customers money, which will be enabled by PG&E’s SmartMeter™ deployment.


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