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Tuesday, Jan 29 2013 05:47 PM

PG&E gears up for final push on smart meters

BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

It's been a long, hard road, but Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is almost finished switching its Kern County customers over to smart meters.

The San Francisco-based utility announced Tuesday that it will begin a final push next month to replace the remaining 3 percent (about 9,000) of its local residential and commercial meters with its second-generation SmartMeters.

The transition from traditional analog meters, begun in Bakersfield in 2006, is expected to be finished before summer. The company said the changeover is about 95 percent complete systemwide.

Smart meters were designed to give ratepayers timely information about their use of electricity and gas so they can make adjustments that can lower their bills. The remote digital devices also allow utilities to offer special rate programs that can lower costs for customers who are able to reschedule their normal use of electricity.

Not everyone will make the change. PG&E stated in a news release that 321 of its Kern County residential customers -- about a sixth of 1 percent -- have signed up for a state-approved opt-out program that grew out of frustrations first voiced in Bakersfield.

"PG&E was pleased to begin accepting opt-out requests from our customers on Feb. 1, 2012, and we encourage any resident who does not want a SmartMeter to contact us directly at 866-743-0263, where we have representatives available 24 hours each day, seven days each week, who can assist them in opting out," local PG&E spokeswoman Katie Allen wrote in an email Tuesday.

PG&E's SmartMeter technology received an especially rocky reception in Bakersfield after customers' bills spiked amid a hot summer that coincided with a steep rate hike in 2009. Since then, PG&E has acknowledged customer service missteps in rolling out the new devices, as well as several SmartMeter technological glitches it says it has since addressed.

An independent study commissioned by the state in 2010 largely exonerated PG&E SmartMeters, though consumer advocates contend that the study was lacking in key areas.

Some of the customers about to receive new meters already have a PG&E SmartMeter. The difference is, it's a first-generation SmartMeter, which was found to have problems the newer version does not.

As part of the transition, PG&E said it will pre-notify customers scheduled to receive a new meter. They will get a phone call or letter prior to the change, Allen wrote.

She added in an interview that the renewed push to complete the transition will involve company representatives doubling back to residences where they initially could not gain access to change out older meters. People who deny the company access to their meter will be given information on how to opt out, she said.

Even as smart meters remain a hot topic in some parts of the country, the issue has largely died down in Kern County. An example is the case of Ann Gutcher Warren, a 78-year-old Bakersfield resident who blames her PG&E SmartMeter for destroying her convection oven.

She said Tuesday that she would have opted out of the program but didn't because of the cost, which for most customers is $75 plus $10 a month.

"I didn't want to give them any more money than I had to," she said.

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