Senator looking into SmartMeters, skyrocketing utility bills

Senator looking into SmartMeters, skyrocketing utility bills
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- A state senator is joining angry power customers in demanding answers about the new SmartMeter program, which some blame for skyrocketing power bills.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez, D-Shafter, said Thursday that he's hearing too many questions about the new technology, and not getting enough answers.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. started installing the new meters in 2006, and a lot of customers have complained the meters are the reason for exorbitant power bills this summer.

Allison Waite is convinced the SmartMeter is to blame for her skyrocketing bills. The Bakersfield resident said she paid $102.28 for power in June when PG&E said the family used 772 kilowatt hours. The next month, the power company claimed her power usage shot up.

"July was $847.97, and we supposedly used 2,785 kilowatt hours," Waite said, adding that she was shocked at the bill. "They've got me using four-times as much between two months."

Bonnie Fortson had a similar experience.

"My bill in June was $617, and my bill in July was $1,462," she said.

Fortson said the family has new, energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs. They did everything they'd been told to lower their power use.

Florez said he's heard a lot of stories like that, and he wants to get to the bottom of this.

"There's more questions than answers, which tells me it's something we have to ask," Florez said.

He's ordered a hearing on the SmartMeters for Oct. 5 at the Kern County Board of Supervisors' chambers. Florez has invited PG&E and Southern California Edison representatives to be at the hearing.

Florez also wants the public to be at the hearing, and he wants anyone with a high power bill to bring it along. He's challenging the power companies to answer consumer questions on the spot.

PG&E spokesman Denny Boyles said the company will do its best to answer customer questions.

"We have no way of knowing how many people are coming," Boyles said, "but we're doing our best to address everybody's concerns as fast as possible."

The power company said they believe the higher bills are not due to the new meters.

"Many times, a lot of times, that is related to increasing usage from the hot weather, and also increased costs from the higher rates," Boyles said.

That's what Florez has heard, too, but he said it just doesn't add up.

Florez has also asked officials from the California Public Utilities Commission to be at the Oct. 5 hearing. He wants them to answer why the new, higher rates kicked in during the summer -- the hottest and most expensive time of the year.

Mindy Spatt with The Utility Reform Network said her watchdog organization has heard complaints about the SmartMeters since they first started going in.

"This technology doesn't seem ready for prime time," she said.

SmartMeters can be read remotely, meaning a worker doesn't have to check them at every house. PG&E spokesman Boyles said the first-generation of SmartMeters transmitted the information back to the company through the power lines, and that "didn't work as well" as they wanted.

New and smarter SmartMeters will send the readings through radio frequencies, he said. Boyles said there will be "collector points" about every mile.

Meanwhile, the company has set up a special hotline for any consumer questions about SmartMeters. The number is (866) 743-0263.

The Oct. 5 hearing is schedule to begin at 6:30 p.m. in the county supervisors' chambers, 1115 Truxtun Avenue, 5th floor.