By Julie Schmit, USA TODAY
Consumer allegations in California that new smart meters measuring household energy use
led to unfairly high bills are unfounded and the meters work just fine, an independent research
group said Thursday.
The finding — that the 6.7 million meters deployed by Pacific Gas & Electric to customers
since 2007 work accurately — may help ease concerns nationwide for utilities pressing ahead
with the so-called smart electricity grid aimed at conserving energy use and production.
The meters are a key part of the effort to upgrade the grid, an undertaking that President Obama
has compared in significance to the building of the interstate highway system. PG&E has
been at the forefront, having deployed more smart meters than any other utility in the nation. But
rather than being welcomed by consumers, PG&E's meter rollout spawned a backlash of
complaints of high bills, a proposed class-action lawsuit, efforts by numerous cities, including
San Francisco, to delay meter installations, and street protests over what some consumers say
are dangerous radio wave emissions from the meters. In April, California regulators ordered a
review of the situation.
PG&E's woes also sparked concern among other utilities that consumers may fight the
meters in their territories, too. Last month, smart meters were deemed accurate in Texas after
an investigation following consumer complaints. "People have been watching California,"
says Katherine Hamilton of GridWise Alliance. It supports smart-grid deployments.
Smart meters track electricity and gas use and wirelessly transmit data to utilities, negating the
need for meter readers. Last year, the Obama administration poured $3.4 billion into smart-grid
projects in 49 states. The meters are the key consumer component of smart grids.
The Structure Consulting Group of Houston, selected by the California Public Utilities
Commission to review PG&E's meters, found the meters more accurate than old ones. It
also backed up PG&E's claims that a 2009 heat wave and rate increases, one up to 23%,
combined to radically boost bills.
A prior investigation by PG&E found issues with 1% of the meters, but most led to no
change in bills or reduced charges, says Helen Burt, PG&E senior vice president.
She says PG&E didn't do a good job educating consumers about rate increases or smart
meters. It's added staffing to address concerns and has lowered some rates. The utility has 3.3
million meters left to install.
Structure didn't assess health concerns. The Federal Communications Commission says smart
meters comply with federal radio frequency emission standards. PG&E says they emit far
fewer emissions than cellphones. One would have to live with a smart meter for 13,000 years to
be exposed to as much radiation as one gets from a cellphone, with moderate use, in one year,