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Calif. Utility Giant Under Fire For 'Smart Meters'

California's largest utility came under fire from state lawmakers Monday for billing practices associated with its "smart-meter program," which has generated nearly 1,000 customer complaints to regulators.

Members of the state Senate took Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to task over the 3-year-old initiative, which uses electronic data, rather than meter readers, to determine customers' monthly gas and electric use.

Advocates say smart meters will lower bills, improve billing accuracy and help customers make better-informed decisions about their energy use. Other utilities in the state also are trying the devices, though on a smaller scale than PG&E.

But state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, said many of his Central Valley constituents are complaining of skyrocketing costs and bill estimates that exceed what they owe.

He said Monday's hearing of the Senate Select Committee on the Smart Grid would be the first of several to address possible flaws in the smart-meter system.

"This is a revolt," Florez said of the angry customers. "The tea party has nothing on smart meters in the Central Valley."

The program covers 5.5 million households, primarily in the valley and the San Francisco Bay Area, according to PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno. It will be expanded to about 9.8 million customers in 2012, he said.

PG&E said the meters have shown 99 percent accuracy and that bill estimates are a relatively rare occurrence.

Since the program rolled out in September 2007, only 0.2 percent of smart-meter bills have been estimates, compared to 0.7 percent of traditional meter bills, said Helen Burt, PG&E senior vice president and chief customer officer, who testified Monday.

"Our billing estimate rate is getting better, and our actual estimates are getting more accurate," Burt said. "Smart-meter technology is actually saving people money."

PG&E reports its smart-meter data monthly to the California Public Utilities Commission, which has assigned an independent audit of the program. The report is scheduled to be completed in August.

The commission's director, Paul Clanon, said the audit was necessary to address the almost 1,000 complaints he and his colleagues have received from smart-meter customers. All but about two dozen of the complaints were from PG&E customers, he said, and mainly from people in the valley.

"One thousand complaints might be a relatively small number," he said Monday. "But one bad meter, one bad bill is one too many."