Dumbest Smart Meters Yet for SoCalGas

TURN OpEd: The dumbest smart meters yet are gas smart meters

The dumbest smart meters yet—gas smart meters—are poised to ignite a new round of smart meter wars in California. Gas meters have few benefits to justify their costs, and the timing of SoCal Gas’ proposal to put them into the homes of every one of their customers could not be worse.

Consumers are suddenly facing the costs of billions in pipeline safety improvements at the exact same time that SoCal Gas is trying to ram a huge rate hike through at the California Public Utilities Commission. The expensive new meters, with a price tag of $1 billion, will send bills sky high for no good reason. The main beneficiaries of the meters will be gas company shareholders, who will “earn” billions in profits from customers’ investment.

Those profits come right out of your pocket, as will the new $1.3 billion rate increase the company wants. Customers will also pay the costs — and the profits on investment—of proposed pipeline safety improvements that could cost as much as $5.5 billion.

The good news is that it isn’t too late to turn back. Rather than continue with yet another reviled smart meter program over consumer objections, the CPUC can put the unnecessary and expensive project on hold. The CPUC is scheduled to vote on the issue on March 22.

The CPUC’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates and The Utility Reform Network recently called on the CPUC to rescind its order allowing SoCal Gas to install the meters.

In light of the urgent need to prioritize pipeline safety, the costs of expensive new meters simply cannot be justified.

Even in the best of times, approval of the meters was a stretch. The CPUC narrowly endorsed the scheme with two of the five commissioners questioning whether consumers would ever recoup their costs. While utility companies have tried to spin electric smart meters as conservation devices, that’s far-fetched. The commission counted no conservation benefits whatsoever when it approved smart gas meters for PG&E and SDG&E.

The theoretical benefits of electric smart meters come from peak load pricing, which is not needed for natural gas. Gas is used primarily for basic needs such as heating and cooking, with fewer discretionary uses than electricity. And prices don’t fluctuate daily the way electric prices do—certainly not enough to motivate consumers to change when they take a shower or cook dinner.

Consumer representatives objected to the high costs of the meters from the beginning. With the changed circumstances, you would think SoCal Gas and the CPUC would welcome a chance to take another look at the troubling issue. Instead, SoCal Gas is starting to spend money by rushing new smart meter approvals through.

The commission needs to act swiftly to pause SoCal Gas’ deployment of smart meters while it considers the merits of the TURN/DRA petition to rescind. Absent a stay, SoCal Gas will be free to keep on saddling ratepayers with costs for a program that customers neither want nor need.