Examiner Editorial: Pull the plug on SmartMeters

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has begun installing so-called SmartMeters in the Bay Area, with promises that the $2.3 billion program will conserve energy and reduce carbon emissions at its 5.4 million customer locations.

SmartMeters are supposed to reduce unnecessary power purchases for the grid and save PG&E ratepayers money by letting them choose to take advantage of upcoming off-peak variable-pricing rates.

The system would also improve PG&E services by automatically reporting which households are experiencing blackouts and enabling utilities to be remotely connected and disconnected when customers move.

The energy giant estimates as much as 90 percent of its SmartMeter costs could be reimbursed by operational savings — including by laying off an army of meter readers. However, PG&E seems to have run into some glitches and is presently asking the California Public Utilities Commission to approve another $572 million expenditure that would ultimately be passed along to the customers.

Many of the approximately 900,000 Smart­Meters installed in Northern California since 2006 were designed to transmit billing data via the PG&E power lines, but this apparently did not work well enough. Now PG&E wants to replace those meters and upgrade the entire system to a wireless network that can handle all the latest automation features — which household customers could only access by buying new appliances.

In a rare barrage of criticism, the San Francisco Department of the Environment and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission jointly issued a report charging that savings from the digital-metering system simply would not cover its increased costs to the public. The California PUC Division of Ratepayer Advocates and The Utility Reform Network watchdog group chimed in with objections that PG&E’s energy conservation claims were overstated.

Bakersfield residents have complained widely that they experienced sharp increases in their power bills after being issued SmartMeters. The San Francisco report for the Board of Supervisors quoted negative tests from across the United States and Canada, while warning that a large-scale system attempting all the advanced features pledged by PG&E has never been tested anywhere.

The City critique strongly recommended that PG&E be required to conduct a 500,000-unit pilot program before rolling out SmartMeters to all its customers. The CPUC was urged to reject any additional smart-meter costs “until the proposed upgrades can be proven to be cost effective and deliver on the promised benefits.”

To The Examiner, it seems self-evident that a true, city-sized test should have always been a necessary element of the SmartMeter introduction. It would be the worst kind of folly to allow full expansion of a system labeled by The City as “risky and unreliable” without proving it actually delivers as promised.

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