Sonoma County residents are about to enter a brave new world where they can monitor their household gas and electricity use hourly by logging online, and, eventually, tell which of their household appliances is spiking the meter and needs to be turned down.
The new "smart grid" promises to revolutionize electricity use on the North Coast, from pinpointing power failures to no longer having to rely on a person to come to your house and physically note how much power you've used.
But to its detractors, the grid is less a technological leap forward than an old-fashioned price gouge, leading to calls for an independent state auditor to check the accuracy of the high-tech meters that are central to the $2.2 billion program.
Pacific Gas and Electric says the meters, which will roll out in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Petaluma and other cities starting in February, will save consumers money through improved pricing methods and ability to monitor energy use.
The utility says that by giving consumers access to data in near real time, they can act as their own plant operators, cutting back on electricity use at peak times to save money. This in turn eases the burden systemwide, thus lowering costs even more, or so the theory goes.
PG&E says the devices also make it easier for solar and wind power to be integrated into an electric system that for the most part still relies on fossil fuels.
But after installing 4 million new gas and electric meters in households and businesses — with 6 million more planned over the next three years — the company is fending off complaints that the devices overstate how many kilowatt hours are used.
"The technology doesn't appear to be ready for prime time. We keep hearing from consumers that they don't trust these meters," said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for the Utility Reform Network in San Francisco.
Consumers have also complained about having to pay higher rates for the program. A company spokesman described the complaint as "exaggerated," saying a 1 percent increase was improved in 2006 for the program.
The consumer group has called for a moratorium on installing the meters, thus far to no avail.