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.
However, the California Public Utilities Commission is planning to bring in an outside auditor to determine whether the meters are accurate.
The action follows a wave of consumer complaints from the Bakersfield area, where some consumers reported that their bills were higher — in some cases, much higher — following installation of the meters.
Much of the anger focused on the electric meters. PG&E said it investigated each case and that none involved meter error. Rather, the company said the higher bills in many cases were because of recent rate increases and California's tiered pricing system, which can significantly increase a person's bill for even modest increases in their electricity use.
Paul Moreno, a spokesman for the company, said some consumers hit with higher bills had not made their previous months' payment on time, or had failed to re-enroll in programs for low-income consumers or those who use large amounts of electricity for medical reasons.
Moreno said the only problems the company has uncovered have not been with the meters, but with the network that communicates the information. He said in a few cases in Rocklin near Sacramento, the company had to estimate energy use for some consumers after the network failed to transmit the data.