By Becca Freed

In the past couple of weeks, PG&E has begun installing so-called SmartMeters on Berkeley residences.  One showed up at my house even before PG&E’s letter arrived announcing the retrofit.

SmartMeters are supposed to let consumers monitor their household energy consumption, with reports on hourly electricity use and daily gas use. Presumably this will encourage people to conserve and shift their usage to off-peak times. PG&E presents this as a way for ratepayers to become more informed and therefore empowered to manage their own energy costs.

However, many people who have received the SmartMeters have seen their utility bills balloon, although their energy-use patterns did not change. Some have had faulty meters replaced, but not without hassles and victim-blaming from PG&E.  Last spring a Bakersfield resident discovered that his online power usage report was fabricated, showing high electricity use during a six-hour blackout.

A Web search on the term “faulty smart meter” turned up reports of problems in Oregon, Ontario, Canada, and Australia.

Bakersfield was one of the first towns in California to have the SmartMeters rolled out, starting in 2007, and residents there have been hard hit by bigger bills. Late last year a class-action lawsuit was filed against PG&E claiming that, among other things, it knowingly installed faulty meters. The suit has been joined by more than 500 people.

For its part, PG&E says the huge bills that Central Valley ratepayers saw last summer are due to hotter-than-usual temperatures and a rate increase, not flawed technology. Green-tech advocates also say that smart meter technology is sound, but PG&E could have done a much better job of communicating with customers about the change and fostering trust.

Personally, I find it a bit hard to trust in changes that my local utility monopoly tells me are “good for me.” I remember the energy deregulation of the late ’90s, which was supposed to empower consumer choice and foster conservation (sound familiar?). Instead, it created conditions that allowed the likes of Enron to rape California citizens.  I also remember bailing out PG&E in 2003 to the tune of billions of dollars as a result of the deregulation fiasco.

Hang onto your old power bills: You’ll want them for comparison after your SmartMeter is installed.

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