Dumbfounded by “SmartMeters”

UPDATE: In late January, 2011, The New York Times published a good overview of how the controversy over smart meters has evolved since this post.

When utilities and the California Public Utilities Commission hatched plans to bolt a “smart meter” onto every household, the premise–and the promise–was that by digitally tracking just how much they were using and spending, customers would be able to make smarter choices about their energy use, ultimately saving money and cutting carbon emissions.

Smart meters are also a critical component of the nascent but much vaunted “smart grid,” in which household appliances and electric cars communicate with the vast power transmission network, and optimize things like when to recharge.

But as I report in my radio story for The California Report, many PG&E customers consider them more bane than boon (PG&E uses the trademark “SmartMeter,” whereas I may refer to them generically as “smart meters”).

Part of what’s riled up customers in Bakersfield and elsewhere in California is that PG&E hasn’t provided the devices to help watch the watts. Customers can go online to track their energy use over the last 24 hours, but that’s about it. And in the meantime, consumers are paying the cost of the new meters, and in some cases, higher bills that they blame on those meters.

Liz Keogh shows me the "SmartMeter" outside her Bakersfield home. Photo: Sasha Khokha

Liz Keogh shows me the "SmartMeter" outside her Bakersfield home. Her summer 2009 bills went up by half after it was installed. (Photo: Kristin Torres)

Julie Fitch, who heads the energy division of the California Public Utilities Commission, told me she thinks those real-time tracking gadgets won’t actually change consumer habits that much. “There’s a certain percentage of us who are interested in seeing what our energy use is at all times, and are fascinated by it, but I think it’s probably a small percentage in the grand scheme of things,” Fitch said.

Fitch says consumers will see more of an advantage from smart meters when home appliances can communicate with the devices.

“The reality is the grid right now is that it’s actually fairly dumb,” Fitch said. There’s a lot of manual decisions that need to be made in order to get the electricity from a generator to your house. I think what we’re looking at is a much more automatically controlled situation where appliances are automatically linked in with smart devices.”

For example, a fully integrated system could “decide” to run your clothes dryer at off-peak times, to relieve strain on the grid and possibly save money. But the whole idea of charging more for power at different times of day, known as peak pricing, troubles consumer advocates like Mark Toney. He heads The Utility Reform Network (TURN), a consumer advocacy group based in Oakland.

“We want to make sure this doesn’t unduly harm seniors, for instance, who are home bound,” Toney told me, pointing out that folks don’t have a choice sometimes about whether to run their air conditioner in the sweltering Central Valley heat.  “We don’t want them to be faced with the choice of being safe in their home or being subject to heat stroke because they shut off their AC because they can’t afford it,” he said.

Toney is also concerned that struggling customers are more likely to see their power shut off,  if they can’t keep up with the bills.  Smart meters allow utilities to turn off power remotely, without having to send a crew out to someone’s home–and that, he says, gives the company less incentive to negotiate payment plans.

The CPUC’s response? Utilities will still have to follow standard procedures, including advance notice of shut-offs.

Meanwhile an independent lab appointed by the CPUC continues to test PG&E SmartMeters to try to determine why some of them are malfunctioning. Some customers now have “side-by-side” test installations, with both analog and digital meters tracking electricity use in tandem. Strangely enough, the deployment of smart meters by Southern California’s two major utilities has gone relatively smoothly, with just a fraction of the complaints that PG&E has logged.

In my radio story, I interviewed Bakersfield Resident Liz Keogh, who saw her electric bill spike after her SmartMeter was installed.  Keogh is very energy-conscious; her home is a veritable showcase of energy-saving gadgetry. There could be any number of technical reasons why the new meters led to larger bills. Keogh developed her own personal theory (since disproved by independent tests), which she demonstrates in the video below, using some unlikely props. It’s a good example of the broad spectrum of consumer objections to the technology.

  • do the math

    sounds like people with smart meters are now paying for their electricity based on the time-of-use rate schedule rather than the flat rate schedule

    so how about you take their last bill and calculate the cost for the two rate schedules?

    sure, you’d have to take some data, make a few simple assumptions, and do some math, but wouldn’t that be better than waving your hands at the SmartMeter Boogeyman?

  • http://www.emeter.com Chris King

    PUCs are asking the wrong question about customer complaints. When customers complain about high gasoline costs regulators never blame the gas pumps, so why are regulators questioning the accuracy of smart meters in Bakersfield, California and in Dallas, Texas? Because they are answering the wrong question. We know these meters are accurate; they’ve been through years of testing before deployment. In fact, I’ll buy anyone who reads my blog a three-star lunch if they can show me an inaccurate smart meter installed by a utility.

    The other wrong question is to ask why the bills have gone up. The reason is that, without a controlled experiment, it is impossible to determine the answer. There are too many variables: rates change, temperatures change, household occupants change, household appliances change (how about that new big screen television?), and even billing periods change (ranging from 27 to 33 days for a monthly bill).

    Here’s the right question: are bills for customers with smart meters any different from bills for customers without smart meters? The simple way to find out is by selecting a statistically valid random sample of customers with smart meters and customers without smart meters, then comparing the two groups. Because I know the meters are accurate, I know what the result of this test will be: both groups will show the same changes, because the changes are from all those other factors, not from the meter. People’s gasoline bills go up because they drive more or pump prices go up, not because the pumps are changed.

    But, you say, what about the information feedback from smart meters that will lower consumption? Good point, but that information is not being delivered yet. We’ll see those savings, but not immediately.

  • Zach

    That video is ridiculous, and I really wish you would remove it from this report.

    That is the most ridiculous logic I’ve ever seen used to describe a new technology in which someone is not familiar. This suggests, then, that in the design phase that the engineers just plumb forgot to take into consideration actual *”calibration”* in the design process. That’s ridiculous. I know 3 different engineers, and while that’s not a sufficient survey to impose on the whole engineering population of the world, I know that engineers are the most thorough, neurotically systematic people around. To think that the designers didn’t take into account the fact that they were dealing with different sized spindles is ludicrous. Your logic is unsound.

    While I’m not in any way a fan of PGE and would love for a PUC to come in and replace them, weak arguments like this are ammunition for PG&E to come in and show the fallacy of the opposing side, further strengthening their position. You’ve also, in my eyes, weakened the impact of the story and you’ve done yourself a disservice.

    I came here after hearing the tag at the end of the radio report where it was stated “watch a video of how one citizen duped the smart meters with two rolls of toilet paper.” This was beyond misleading, and whether you intended to simply direct traffic to the site or you actually felt this supported your case, you’ve really failed here.

    Please keep this kind of stuff in the conspiracy forums, it does nothing to help your reporting.

  • Craig Miller

    Let’s first set the record straight on what we said. We did not use the word “duped.” What was actually read on the air was “Watch a customer demonstrate her critique of SmartMeters using two rolls of toilet paper.”
    Likewise the blog post made it clear that this was her personal theory. Keogh has done this same demonstration at a public hearing. It’s not intended to be our view.
    –Craig Miller, Sr. Editor, Climate Watch

    • Zach

      On your first point, I concede– it’s hard to remember what you heard verbatim in passing on the radio while driving.

      On your second point, I still stand by my statement– this is lazy logic and adds no merit to the discussion. She could have done this “demonstration” on the evening news and it still wouldn’t be a sound argument or analogy, nor would it add her any more credibility. This is really just poor material to work with, and I still hold that it doesn’t belong in the report. Then again, I’m just some passing commenter on a blog, not the reporter, so I guess it doesn’t really matter, does it?

    • Zach

      …and upon watching the video again, it still clearly demonstrates that SmartMeter designers used the same metrics for one “spindle” as the other. It’s absurd that you would give airtime to a hypothesis that has about the same mental rigor as the flat-Earth view. Aristotle is turning in his grave.

  • Craig Miller

    It absolutely matters what you think. Again, we weren’t applying any test of rigor to the TP demo, or putting it forth as a serious explanation. But admit it now, you’ll be pretty embarrassed when the independent lab appointed by the CPUC comes back with two rolls of toilet paper! :-)

    • Zach

      Time to buy stock in Charmin Corp?

  • muriel

    It’s easy to check your Smart meter. Turn off all appliances and unplug everything. Then slowly plug things in. My energy use (not cost, but actual usage) went up three times since they installed the smart meter. Not because it’s not smart, but because my former meter was stupid. I was getting free energy from PG&E.

  • Anonymous

    My bill has gone down.

    Thank you PG&E!!

  • Anonymous

    “… folks don’t have a choice sometimes about whether to run their air conditioner in the sweltering Central Valley heat.”

    Don’t live in the sweltering Central Valley heat.  NO ONE FORCED them to live there. The HAVE a choice.  They are not interred there by the government against their will.  These people are stupid.