SDG&E Bucket List: Smart Meters?

by Kristen Wright, senior editor

The switch to smart meters doesn’t always go as smoothly as it did in America’s Finest City. Then again, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) approached its advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) deployment by continually courting customers before swapping a single meter.

SDG&E’s AMI deployment is the first program in the utility’s history to affect all 1.4 million electric and nearly 900,000 gas customers in San Diego and southern Orange counties. When the utility installs the last of the remaining 40,000 Itron smart meters in 2013 as projected, SDG&E will be the first U.S. utility to complete an AMI deployment across its entire customer base. In this case, the on-time and on-budget deployment will span some 4,100 square miles.

“Our No. 1 responsibility is to provide safe, reliable service to our customers while working toward being an industry leader,” said Farrell Cox, SDG&E smart meter deployment manager. “With our customers at the forefront of SDG&E’s efforts, our goal was to complete the smart meter deployment while being transparent in our work, collaborative with our customers and responsive to our stakeholder needs.”

COURTING CUSTOMERS

SDG&E developed its smart metering business case “at the inspiration of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC),” Cox said. The commission called on three investor-owned regulated utilities-Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE) and SDG&E-to investigate potential for using AMI technologies. The commission and interveners challenged SDG&E to include in its business case the ability to remotely connect and disconnect smart meters, among other benefits.

“The first thing you get with smart meters is the ability to get customer-use data in real time,” Cox said. “The benefit to the customer is we’re not sending a meter reader into the streets of San Diego to capture meter reads. We’re not clogging their neighborhoods, we’re not taking their parking spaces. Our carbon footprint is reduced dramatically from fewer truck rolls.”

That’s more than 250,000 fewer truck rolls, which reduces SDG&E’s carbon footprint by the equivalent of some 1,950 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, Cox said.

In 2007, the CPUC approved SDG&E’s AMI business case. About two years before its first smart meter installation, SDG&E began hosting customer co-design panels.

The panels revealed which messages customers wanted to hear and when they wanted to hear them, Cox said. From that customer input, SDG&E adopted a proactive 90/60/30 Day Communications Plan:

  • Ninety days before a smart meter installation: SDG&E informed community leaders that the utility would be installing meters in the area.
  • Sixty days before a smart meter installation: SDG&E set up booths in the community staffed with smart meter leaders and customer service experts.
  • Thirty days before a smart meter installation: The utility mailed letters and phoned customers to remind them about the upcoming installations in their neighborhoods.

By late 2011, the communications team had conducted and attended more than 400 community presentations and events with politicians, businesses, industry groups, community leaders and the general public. SDG&E told customers what to expect before, during and after smart meter installations.

To manage complaints and issues that fell outside normal business, SDG&E set up an escalated desk. The utility also established a field-focused triage team to respond proactively to concerns such as access to meters in landscaping and adjusting gas meters so they weren’t in the way of gates. Prior to installation, SDG&E conducted field area surveys to identify potential problems.

As for post-installation expectations, SDG&E lauded the benefits of smart meter data availability and conducted numerous pilots to provide energy-saving tools to customers so they could see how access to energy data could help save them money. SDG&E’s online energy tool provides residential customers with next-day hourly data for electric and daily gas usage. Commercial and industrial customers see data at 15-minute intervals, Cox said.

SDG&E also monitored what was going on with other utilities and closely watched customer accounts with newly installed smart meters for bills that were higher or lower than in the past. If the utility determined there was a problem, a representative contacted the customer proactively to discuss the bill and schedule a home visit if necessary.

THE LATEST

SDG&E never set a goal to be the nation’s first fully smart meter-enabled utility, Cox said. It just happened that way.

“We’re not getting there fast enough for some customers,” he said.

Among the remaining 40,000 medium and large commercial customers awaiting smart meters are those with complex billing algorithms and those whose meters are hard to reach, Cox said.

Customer reactions to the smart meter installations have been overwhelmingly positive with few complaints. The complaint rate relating to SDG&E’s smart meter installation is 0.16 percent-about 3,600 of nearly 2.3 million installations, Cox said.

“I think that speaks to what we’re trying to accomplish: Just give the customer a good outcome,” he said.

The number of complaints is inflated, however, because it includes resolved problems, Cox said.

“Short story is we’ve got a lot of equipment in various ages and stages of their lifecycle, so we found things that broke along the way,” he said. “Those end up being inconveniences for our customers and end up as complaints. The outcome is if we broke it, we fix it, and I think our customers appreciated that.”

Aside from the resolved complaints, there aren’t many outstanding ones, Cox said. Some 0.05 percent of SDG&E customers were on its smart meter delay list, he said.

The CPUC on Sept. 21 directed each of the state’s utilities to establish a delay list of their customers who oppose smart meter installations. The ruling said utilities would delay smart meter installations for those customers. An April 19 CPUC ruling, however, negated the delay list directive and ordered SDG&E and SCE to offer residential customers a smart meter opt-out provision.

CPUC President Michael R. Peevey weighed both sides in a same-day statement.

“As we move toward a more advanced electricity grid, smart meters will offer customers real benefits,” Peevey said. “However, if a customer does not want to have a smart meter, our decision today gives them that option.”

The decision echoes another the CPUC issued Feb. 1, that time regarding PG&E’s smart meter installation: All customers on a delay list will be transitioned to a wireless smart meter unless they elect to opt out.

Commissioner Timothy Alan Simon praised the commission’s decision.

“It is a great example of how public initiative and participation can result in better regulatory policy,” Simon said in a statement.

SDG&E customers who opt out may choose to have an analog electric meter, analog gas meter or both, but those who do will be assessed an initial $75 fee and a monthly $10 charge. Low-income customers enrolled in the California Alternate Rates for Energy program may opt out at reduced rates: an initial $10 fee and a monthly $5 charge.

According to the CPUC, the interim charges approved April 19 are subject to adjustment upon conclusion of a second phase during which actual opt-out costs will be addressed.

Cox remains confident in SDG&E’s AMI deployment and customers’ reactions. Smart metering can be checked on the utility’s bucket list.

“I’d like to think that we began with the end in mind and did a good job,” he said.

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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