PG&E metes out doubts

New, controversial electric meters that are being tacked up on northern San Mateo County homes, may multiply or slash the bills of residents, depending on who you ask.

The northern Peninsula is one of the first regions in the Bay Area to receive the so-called SmartMeters from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. The wireless meters use radio frequencies to provide electricity usage data to the utility and customer. PG&E plans to install them in every California city by the end of 2011. The effort will save the company from paying workers to check on the meters routinely.

But the California Public Utilities Commission’s Division of Ratepayers Advocates thinks the high-tech gadgets will lead to increased rates because the equipment is not worth its mammoth price tag, said group supervisor Christopher Danforth. The program will cost PG&E $1.7 billion to $2.3 billion.

A report issued by officials in San Francisco, scheduled to receive its SmartMeters in September 2009, said residents of Bakersfield, who were the first in the state to receive the meters, reported sharp increases in their PG&E bills after the equipment installation. The report also found the meters had not reduced electricity usage.

“Anytime you have the benefits lower than the cost, in the long run, rates will go up,” Danforth said.

Mindy Spatt, communications director for the consumer advocacy group The Utilities Reform Network, agreed.

“Consumers are looking for ways to save both money and energy, and SmartMeters will do neither,” Spatt said.

Crews are currently installing the meters for gas customers and will begin making the switch for electric customers within a few weeks to a month, said utility spokesman Paul Moreno. The meters will be installed in the southern half of the county starting in February.

Moreno insisted that a 1 percent rate increase implemented in 2006 would be all the utility needs to offset the overall cost of the program. In the long run, he said the meters could lead to lowered rates because residents could monitor when they use their energy.

San Bruno acting Public Works Director Steve Davis agreed.

“I like the opportunity of having rate choices,” Davis said. “We may see a potential savings in our rates.”

mrosenberg@sfexaminer.com

PG&E SmartMeters

Wireless gadgets provide electricity-usage data to the utility and customer.

10.3 million Customers in California receiving meters

$1.7 billion Initial amount approved by state to install meters statewide

$572 million Additional amount PG&E has requested for program

8 Northern San Mateo County cities currently receiving meters

February 2009 Southern San Mateo County cities begin receiving meters

September 2009 San Francisco begins receiving meters

5 Locations for signal equipment in San Bruno

$780 PG&E’s payment, per location, to city of San Bruno

Source: PG&E, San Bruno

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