When a fellow considered an energy expert receives a bill for electricity that totals over $2,800, what does one do?
Well, if one works for Pike Research, a leading global authority on anything to do with the smart grid, one writes about it, and vents one frustration in the public domain. The end result? A 60% retroactive bill reduction!
Now, reflecting upon my own situation, I realize I was somewhat guilty of not doing a little homework on the impact of relying upon an all-electric water heating system would have on my bank account during one of the coldest and wettest winters on the California north coast. Guilty of being too busy – a common affliction – I never bothered to look at these heaters and see that each ranged from 1 to 1.5 kilowatts a piece in electricity demand.
Just the same, not receiving an electricity bill for three months because the utility thought the bills were unreasonably high also seems rather ludicrous – especially within the context of smart meters being able to provide real-time data on energy usage. When the customer has no access to the data, then the value of the data is only going one way – to the utility.
These are the points I made to a gathering of utility customer service representatives looking to learn how e-tools and IT could improve service for their customers in Portland, Oregon last week. The five-year old organization – Energy E-Business Consortium – consisted of utility folks from all across the country. They wanted was someone from Pike Research to brief them on the latest thinking on how utilities might offer smart grid services. What they got was me, someone that has never sent a text message, whose expertise is a deep knowledge about policy and on the distributed energy future, but has an absolute disdain for gadgets. In short, I’m the average consumer out there, a renter, and not one to be tinkering with devices to see how much energy each of them uses by turning them on and off and going to look at the smart meter.
My basic message to these poor souls – the smart grid is not a one size fits all solutions. Yes, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is now offering an opt-out program for folks that are worried about the radio frequencies, security (and accuracy) of the data being generated by wireless smart meters, but charging extra but getting less information from customers seemed a bit backward to me. Glad I’m not someone working for PG&E trying to explain that value proposition to consumers or regulators.
The irony of my own experience with smart meters and high bills is this: Once I published a blog describing my own rather shocking experience in billing from a smart meter in a new home on March 24 (”Asking Dumb Questions About PG&E’s Smart Meters”), I immediately started getting phone calls from PG&E after not hearing a peep for over a week. And suddenly I was informed that the utility was willing to offer me a discount that amounted to $1,700!
The latest PG&E representative I talked to that offered this rate discount noted that this was an adjustment outside of the normal tariffs, and “was an unregulated rate.” Being a policy wonk, that raised some questions in the back of mind, but getting such a large refund somehow dampened my need for further explanation. Though I wondered how many PG&E customers had access to these “unregulated rate adjustments” and suddenly felt that I was among the privileged few, not because of a vast financial fortune, but due to the power of the pen.
I also discovered that PG&E had, in 2007, been slapped on the wrist by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for “improper back billing practices,” and that the CPUC had established a three month limit on back billing for residential customers. (My bill covered roughly three months.) As part of this CPUC directive, PG&E was required to submit regular bills – generally monthly. Perhaps PG&E’s generous reductions were motivated by these legal considerations?
The utility claimed the reason for this major reduction in my bill was that since I was informed of my large electricity bill, my consumption had declined by more than 60%. How? I just turned off all of the heaters and wore extra sweaters, long underwear and a knitted hat. Luckily, spring has sprung. Interestingly enough, a PG&E meter reader came out to the house and verified the smart meters were indeed correct. And despite what the PG&E rep on the phone told me that raised my ire – that PG&E would not be able to offer me any tips on how to reduce energy consumption — he did offer some tips.
The kicker to all of this is that my landlord has suddenly taken an interest in investigating installing solar photovoltaics (PV) to the roof. Who would have guessed that the largest electricity bill I have ever had might persuade a tight landlord to switch to solar? Stay tuned – maybe this story will have a very happy ending after all.
Of course, I still have the smart meter, and a future blog post will address the growing hysteria surrounding radio frequencies. I’ll also discuss other ways for utilities such as PG&E to offer alternatives that would still allow all citizens/consumers/ratepayers an opportunity to be a part of the solution.