Uproar over energy bills leads PG&E to open answer center

Uproar over energy bills leads PG&E to open answer center
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has set up shop at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Bakersfield where its fielding questions from customers who are worried about high power bills.

Many customers have complained about the new SmartMeters, and PG&E said they hope to answer questions and resolve concerns.

Bakersfield resident Eric Turner was at the answer center a couple hours after it opened on Friday morning.

"At this point everything is frozen," he said after spending 30 minutes with some company representatives. "We're going to have a PG&E rep come out, and they're going to do a test on the meter."

Turner is furious about the SmartMeter that went on his house this spring. He said it's one of the newer "second generation" devices that PG&E is now installing.

His bills had averaged about $150 after moving into the house last November. After the new meter went in, he got a bill in June for $163. Then he got no power bills at all for three months.

"They said the SmartMeter had messed up somewhere. They didn't know why, the investigation was being done on it," Turner said. "Next thing I know, I check my e-mail address -- I have a bill for $2,006 for three months of PG&E."

He's convinced his power usage could not have shot up four times or more in those three summer months.

PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said they believe the higher bills are due to a rate increase that went into effect in March and the number of days over 100 degrees in July.

That's about what customer Otto Chacon heard when he talked to a power company rep.

"Their explanation was it was partly related because of the heat wave we had," Chacon said.

Chacon said PG&E will put him into an "energy saving" type account, and he hopes that will lower his bills. He appreciated getting to talk about his bills on Friday.

"I'm glad they're here to answer questions instead of calling an answering machine," Chacon said. "I think it's a good idea."

PG&E will have the answer center running at the Marriott on Saturday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. and again on Monday from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. And they've added two more sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m.

Also on Monday, State Senator Dean Florez, D-Shafter, will hold a hearing on the power bills and SmartMeters. That will be held at the Kern County Board of Supervisors Chambers starting at 6:30 p.m.

Celeste Garcia was also there for the first day of the PG&E answer center. She doesn't have a SmartMeter at her house yet, but she's very frustrated over her high bill.

"It's horrible to pay $500 per month, or $700 per month even though you have an efficiency house," she complained.