The Gas and the Furious

By Lynn Lieu

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Posted August 19, 2010 in News

Earlier this year, a $1.05 billion plan was approved by the state Public Utilities Commission allowing Southern California Gas Company to install radio-controlled “smart” meters throughout the region. SoCalGas, which services residential and business customers from Fresno to the Mexican border, will install and update a total of six million meters—600,000 of which will be installed in the metropolitan areas covering Riverside, San Bernardino and Ontario. Hooray, technology!

But there’s criticism that the technology will create more problems than it solves. More on that in a bit.

But SoCalGas is positively beaming at the benefits of the new devices.

“Smart meters will offer a number of benefits to our customers,” says SoCalGas Public Relations Manager Raul Gordillo. “They will lower rates for customers two years after full deployment; enable customers to better manage energy use and associated costs; improve customer privacy, security and convenience; and enhance meter reading/billing accuracy.” Sound good?

Along with meter installation, SoCalGas will also use the approved funds to build a radio network across the company’s service territory to collect and transmit data from customer meters, and a supporting information technology infrastructure.

This is all in line with the Public Utilities Commission’s orders to move away from the “meter reader” days and toward “smart” electric and gas meters. Electric smart meters have already been installed and are in use, boasting savings for customers who use electricity during non-peak hours.

“The cost of natural gas is not affected by time of use the way electricity is, but the ‘choice and control’ made possible by advanced gas meter data will result in overall conservation,” Gordillo says. “Customers of all the major utilities in California should share the benefits of smart meters in support of the state’s energy and environmental policies.

But, even given the benefits of the smart readers, opponents are leery about the costs of their installation—and the possible impact on the customer service end of things.

“People are waiting to get their gas restored longer than before,” says Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network (TURN), an independent organization which monitors utilities in California.

In a press release earlier this month that outlines an incident where a business owner took to restoring his own gas line on his own—the end result was a fatal accident—Toney suggests that the long period of time the company took to restore gas was a possible contributing factor.

“Utilities should do everything they can to make sure that customers are not tempted to take matters into their own hands, sometimes with deadly consequences,” he says.

Another possible drawback—fewer jobs.

Toney believes that the elimination of jobs will follow the installation of the new meters. Sound like technology replacing humans?

“Every residential customer is paying for and getting [a smart meter],” Toney says. “Spending money to eliminate thousands of jobs isn’t worth it; you’re supposed to spend money to create jobs not eliminate them.”

Gordillo assures us, however, that the benefits outweigh the monetary costs of the smart meters.

“Costs will be offset by operating efficiencies and energy conservation, and customer rates are expected to go down two years after full implementation,” Gordillo says. “In addition, we have proposed an incentive system for managing and controlling overall smart meter project costs. If we come in under budget, we will share the savings with customers upon completion of the project.”

But what about fewer “meter reader” jobs?

“All of this is subject to bargaining with our unions,” says Gordillo.


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