My PG&E Smart Meter was installed in December 2009 so I thought it time to review my first year experience and what I have learned.  The PG&E contractor installed the smart meter in just a few minutes and it worked fine.  No problems with meter operation.

Customer Contact from PG&E

About a month after my smart meter was installed I received a pamphlet from PG&E in the mail explaining my meter and directing me to the PG&E website to get more information about my actual usage. Other than that have been no contacts from PG&E other than two attempts to get me to sign up for their remote control program to shut off my A/C on peak days for short periods if PG&E needs to conserve energy.  The $25 “reward” for giving up control over my A/C did not seem like a fair trade so I said “no thanks”.

What Did I Learn About My Usage?

The smart meter sends its readings every 15 minutes and PG&E summarizes it the next day online so you can check it if you have nothing better to do.  Frankly, the frequent meter readings may be useful to PG&E but for most customers it just isn’t useful.  I do like the PG&E website and the useful calculators to both explain my usage changes from period to period and the reasons for the cost components going up and down.

The PG&E website is convenient and easy to use but, frankly the monthly summary information is much more useful for the typical residential customer.  I pulled the following information from my online usage history to make the table below:

One Year of Smart Meter Data Summarized
Month Avg kWh used Avg ¢/kWh Low Use kWh High Use kWh
Jan 66.6 0.254 53.08 77.45
Feb 58.9 0.234 48.53 67.08
Mar 56.9 0.228 49.33 63.79
Apr 59.4 0.231 47.03 70.49
May 60.9 0.292 52.26 69.94
Jun 69.8 0.345 47.73 117.28
Jul 75.9 0.326 52.18 115.74
Aug 69.8 0.328 46.08 123.56
Sep 68.9 0.321 47.31 110.34
Oct 62.9 0.325 43.49 87.57
Nov 62.4 0.279 46.24 80.13
Dec 56.8 0.225 43.69 70.75
Swing 34% 52% 11% 94%
Lessons Learned

1.       Summary Usage Data Works Fine.  My smart meter sends PG&E readings every 15 minutes but that data frequency and the massive amount of data is not useful or necessary for individual residential consumers.  The summary data available by day, week or month available on PG&E’s website works great.

2.       When Do I use the Most Energy?  I find I look periodically at the daily data to see when I use the most energy and to try to judge how I can manage my peaks.  In my case my usage increases at twice each day coinciding with when my swimming pool equipment cycles on to do its work and then again during the 4pm to 7pm period when everyone is home and powering up TVs and PCs, cooking dinner and turning things on.

3.       Energy Dieting is Hard Work!  My household uses twice the electricity as the average home in my area says PG&E.  I will NEVER be the Biggest Loser! Reducing my power gluttony has been a constant challenge made difficult by more electronic technology, my home office work habits, swimming pool equipment and PG&E tiered rate torture plan.  But it’s the average things in every household that add up to push you into high rate tiers.  For example a refrigerator uses an average of 2.2 kWh per day, a load of laundry costs 5.1 kWh to wash and dry; run your dishwasher and it costs you 2.8 kWh per load.

4.       Tiered Rates are Torment. Under PG&E’s tiered rates baseline use costs $0.1087 per kWh (oh how I dream of baseline use!); Tier 2 use costs $0.1250 per kWh; but wastefully venture into Tier 3 and it will cost you $0.25 per kWh; and if you don’t get the point then Tier 4 will torment you at $0.28 per kWh for your sinful, wasteful, earth-killing ways!

5.       Phantom Power is Everywhere! The PG&E tells me that every PC costs me an average of 6 kWh of use daily at .2823 cents per kWh or $1.69 per day or $50.81 per 30-day billing period. Every flat panel LCD-TV is an energy hog costing about $18 per month at high tiered rates. Adding up all that power consumption will cause any ratepayer to lust for CHEAP coal fired generation.

6.       Weather Matters a Lot.  See the chart above?  My average use can swing 34% over the year mostly because of weather, but my average cost per kWh swings 52% when the weather is warmer and the A/C comes on.  The swing in my actual usage from low to high tells me how vulnerable I am to those A/C spikes especially when I have built in factors like swimming pool equipment and the normal afternoon peak use on top of A/C.  Level billing is my friend because it averages out the peaks and valleys of my bills giving me a high but steady monthly energy bill with no ugly spike surprises.  But trust me—when your average per kWh cost is a staggering $0.28 cents it gets ugly fast.

7.       My Smart Meter is Irrelevant!  The surprising lesson in all of this is that my smart meter has almost nothing to do with any of these lessons.  The data I rely upon was available before my smart meter was installed and the monthly summaries are still the most useful data available for my purposes.  So where is the consumer benefit from smart meters?  As far as I can tell all the benefits are flowing to PG&E, but my rates are still going up.

My smart meter is not to blame for my rising utility bills

My utility bills are going up because its California and it gets hot in the summer, my wife insists upon having the A/C on, and my politicians and utility regulators demand that I buy the most expensive power supply they can force PG&E to buy to meet their renewable energy and emissions reduction goals.

My family and I compound the situation by living our normal lives using computers, video games and other sources of constant phantom power consumption.  As for me, I am NOT willing to give up my flat screen TV nor my ‘beer refrigerator’ in the garage so Pete Darbee keeps sending me a big bill every month and I keep paying it.

The Bakersfield Effect is the sum of all our fears that the costs of living our lives will keep going up, up, up until we can’t afford to live here anymore and have to move back to the Midwest or maybe Texas where power prices are lower and so are taxes—-and most of the politicians have ‘day jobs’.

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35 thoughts on “Life with My PG&E Smart Meter after One Year

  1. Gary,

    I’m wondering why your SmartMeter is taking reads every 15 minutes? The rates you refer to are typical residential flat use rates suggesting you have a standard residential meter which only takes a read every 60 minutes. SmartMeters that read every 15 minutes are usually installed in commercial/industrial settings where the consumer has a time-of-use rate.

    wes

  2. You write the most balanced assessment of the smart meter I have read. You do know that with a solar lease and other new technology, you might save about $1,000 per year, right? In any case, thanks for the feedback. We wish more people thought about energy the way you do.

    Scott

  3. Thanks Gary,
    I appreciate your detailed posting. It illustrates the primary motive that utilities put in these meters–to achieve management over how you consume power. Did you know that they can shut you off remotely?, etc.

  4. A simple alternative to the “dry” component of your clothes washing is using sun + wind to dry your clothes.

    Not sure about the US, but in Australia we rarely use clothes dryers unless forced to by weather (long spells of heavy rain) or strata (some apartments do not allow clothes to be dried on the balcony and have no common drying areas while the apartments themselves are too small for a drying area).

    Regarding “where does the benefit go” – a part of it assists with locating impact areas, and thus root cause analysis, of blackouts removing the need for you and your community acting as the sensory network reporting problems with the network (if you notice).

    Finally: you’re experiencing the second part of the right to choose what your want to own and operate – the responsibility to pay for that choice. Your prices are still quite cheap compared to some parts of the world, and as you continue on a peakier path, the cost per energy unit will only keep going up.

    Time for storage perhaps?

  5. Hi Gary;
    I enjoyed your post. It was informative and amusing. Here’s my thought as to how measuring your usage every 15 minutes (or 1 hour) will change things.

    Eventually people with smart meters will be offered time of use pricing. Electricity supply costs vary over time based on volume of demand. So during time periods when there is high demand say during the day, prices will be set higher. Periods of low demand, wee hours of the night, prices will be set lower. This will theoretically encourage folks to use electricity when demand thus prices are lower. The classic example is using a timer to run your dishwasher at 3 a.m. rather than after dinner.

  6. Gary – Great report! But why do you try to avoid using energy during peak times? On your rate plan it costs the same as other times. If you were on a time-of-use or other price plan, you would be saving money by reducing the peak. That’s where the smart meter comes in – you can’t go on a time-of-use plan with an old meter, because the old meter doesn’t know when you use power.

    Hope this makes sense.

    Chris

  7. Well, you can go on a time-of-use rate with an old meter but it wouldn’t tell you what hour during the peak (say 14:00 to 19:00) that you are using the most energy or what day of the week you are using the most energy; it would tell you how much energy you used during peak time for the whole month. The only way to be aware of your hour by hour usage is with a Smart Meter, then with a time-of-use rate you could make an informed decision to say put your pool pump on a timer and only run it between 19:00 and 24:00 or 03:00 to 07:00.

  8. I think the most significant item Gary brought up is how inelastic electricity use is at the margins. I believe prices would have to really go up during peak use for people to consume less and prevent that next power plant from being permitted. I’m afraid ratepayers will prevent any game changing price hike, so the best bet right now might just be direct activism preventing new plants from being installed in the first place, granted in California for example, this just results in NIMBY and more plants across state lines sending electricity to California. On a positive not we are still determining user behavior and elasticity.

  9. Chris: You really need to give up on the idea of trying to prevent the building of future power plants for several reasons. First, it won’t work. California already is a net importer of electricity depending upon other states to provide about 20% of its energy demand. Second, the entire purpose of utilities is to supply energy to meet demand so if California is unable to meet its demand requirements consumers will not use less they will simply move. The demand does not go away it merely moves with the business or household. And third, unless California builds future power generation in a rational, economic way it will be faced with higher power price volatility, more expensive sources of energy and lower economic growth in the future. Those left in the Golden State will be spending a lot more of their gold to pay their light bill as a result.

  10. I like to compare electricity to underwear, it’s very personal. Personal because we each wear it differently to make our lives more tolerant and comfortable. If it is interrupted, our lives stop in their tracks and we wait for someone to restore our personal environment. Not many industries have that kind of immediate and direct impact on a culture. The great concerns from the end users come when they feel that someone is threatening their life style. It is taken as a personal attack where end customers feel they are losing control of their lives and that someone is trying to strip them naked, and that is personal.

    The utility industry, as a whole, has done a great job of providing services over the decades with reliable and cheap energy. I have had to boot my computer more times than I’ve had to deal with power outages. Problem is that utilities have failed or do not know how to tell end users what they are doing for them on a regularly basis and what it takes to provide that service. The end users have no real reference points to base their perceptions on except the continued increases they pay in their monthly bills.

    I believe that the real truth is that we have to work this out. It will have impacts on utilities and end customers beyond our wildest nightmares. This is an issue that will affect everyone’s quality of life which includes environmental and wallet. Like other natural resources, there is only so much gold in any state and when it runs out you’ll have to make do without it. There is also only so many places you can go before you realize your are still sitting in someone else’s mess.

  11. Another brilliant example of why Smart Metering is a bad idea. Two possible thoughts on smart metering….

    1. “Smart? ” Yes! It may be construed as an ingenious way for your utility company to increase its profitability…

    2. “Smart” is also for “that smarts” as in the pain you feel when you get your more costly utility bill.

    The bottom line is that utility companies are the ones pushing for Smart Grid technology. That’s fine as long as the intelligence stays out on the transmission and distribution grid so that they can direct and dispatch conventional and renewable resources.

    But when the Smart Metering is a new way to nick the ratepayers for time-of-use power, it is our responsibility to contact our Public Utilities Commissions (PUC) and push back against Smart Metering.

    Utility companies need to deliver flat-rate, reasonable cost electricity 24/7. Charging more for power during business hours and at-home hours is simply untenable.

    I would encourage ratepayers to tell their PUC’s that Smart Metering for time of use pricing should not happen on our watch. If utilities push back, PUC’s should use their power to fine power companies that do not comply to flat, 24/7 pricing. Using Smart Meters to the benefit of ratepayers is OK, but anything short of flat, affordable electricity pricing should be rejected.

  12. I agree as a resident, the smart meter only benefits the utility. If you grant to your utility the right to turn off your AC compressor when power usage, costs and temperature are the highest it only benefits the utility. This is because you are on a fixed energy rate ($/kWh) regardless of when you use energy. You will lose patience very quickly knowing you agreed to this for a mere $25.

    However, a large end user that has some load flexibility certainly could benefit from a smart meter on a variable rate. For example, an industrial customer could save thousands of dollars simply by shifting operations for a few hours during a high cost period if they entered into a real time energy contract (index) with a competitive supplier.

    In an index contract, the customer is paying the true hourly cost of power as its being generated as opposed to your fixed energy rate. As a result, the customer sees the direct benefit in lower energy costs from shifting the load to a more economical time. This in turn, frees up the power grid and transmission lines to deliver power to businesses that cannot in a practical sense curtail load such as hospitals and large office buildings.

    So while a smart meter for your home has little benefit, it still is beneficial for large end users whom can vary load on demand and helps the overall power grid during times of high demand.

  13. Your thoughts were very insightful. I’m curious about the remote control program that allows you to cycle on and off your air. Besides your pool filter, the other energy hog is definitely the AC and if you had the ability to either turn the thermostat down or off remotely to save on energy costs while you are not there, I believe that is a great program, but I don’t know all the details of the program you are referring too. Also, if you could utilize a program that measures electricity output based on what you will pay versus just your usage amount, you may see where you are budget wise at the end of the month and determine ways to cut down. As a consumer, it would be more useful to see where I am monetarily than just on usage. It would be a simple program to calculate rate based on where I’m at for usage in the month. Loved your insight, very helpful and others comments about a Time of Use style program would be a great benefit to smart meters but I think utilities and companies are still in the process of rolling them all out before they will budget product costs for new products utilizing the smart meter technology.

  14. WHAT ABOUT A ‘CUSTOMER SERVICE EXPERT’ OFFERING YOU THE ENERGY SAVING GUIDANCE (through mail OR phone call OR both) ON A WEEKLY OR MONTHLY BASIS.

    Energy saving is definitely a habit which needs to be inculcated over a period of time by (esp.) a retail consumer. To make it a habit, you will require someone who can introduce, inform, guide, support and motivate you (Similar to a Personal Gym Instructor) – of course ensuring that he is rather a help and not forced upon you. Should friendly ‘CUSTOMER SERVICE ANALYST’ be able to reduce the pains of frequent visits and deciphering the Utility website?

  15. WHAT ABOUT A ‘CUSTOMER SERVICE EXPERT’ OFFERING YOU THE ENERGY SAVING GUIDANCE (through mail OR phone call OR both) ON A WEEKLY OR MONTHLY BASIS.

    Energy saving is definitely a habit which needs to be inculcated over a period of time by (esp.) a retail consumer. To make it a habit, you will require someone who can introduce, inform, guide, support and motivate you (Similar to a Personal Gym Instructor) – of course ensuring that he is rather a help and not forced upon you. Should friendly ‘CUSTOMER SERVICE ANALYST’ be able to reduce the pains of frequent visits and deciphering the Utility website?

    Might also be an option to eliminate direct control of your domestic equipment by your Utility –
    1. Reduction of Consumer pain and
    2. Lowering Utility cost of implementing Remote Direct Load Control Technology

  16. If the highest Tier 4 electricity cost is 28 cents/kWh, how does the monthly bill have an average cost of over 30 cents/kWh (maybe it’s all the other fees????)

  17. “For example a refrigerator uses an average of 2.2 kWh per day, a load of laundry costs 5.1 kWh to wash and dry; run your dishwasher and it costs you 2.8 kWh per load.” – if those are your actual appliance readings, you may do well to get a new appliance or two, especially if you’re in those higher tiers! As for the beer fridge, you may want to fix that too; I also have a 2nd fridge, mostly for beer, but it’s super-efficient, listed #1 on http://www.toptenusa.org mid-sized fridges. Got it from Home Depot, $400, Hotpoint – nothing fancy. Again, at those rates it may pay back pretty darned fast.

    It is disappointing that your smart meter couldn’t really share any of its smarts with you. 🙂 In my experience, a $20 kill-a-watt meter will tell you much more about what you’re using and where. Every 100W of always-on-whatever will add 73kWh to your bill. Sadly a smart meter won’t help you find those things (though maybe it could give you an idea of your base load based on the low point during the day…)

    Thanks for sharing, that was some interesting insight into what people get out of (or don’t get out of…) these things.

  18. The statement, “..It is disappointing that your smart meter couldn’t really share any of its smarts with you” is one of the biggest misunderstanding of what a smart meter does. The meters only measures the total amount of energy that is flowing into or out of the site and smart meters can only do that in a couple of different ways, that for now mainly benefits the utilities. Exactly how each site uses that energy is not a function know by the smart meters or the utility. Knowing which appliance is on, refrigerator, furnace, vacuum cleaner, dishwasher, or etc., and how much it is using is not know and nor do I think utilities really want or need to know that level of detail. To me, that is a true invasion of privacy unless the customer gives authority for someone to monitor it for them, and that is typically not done through the smart meter.

    The real issue is getting people to understand the benefits, consequences, and cost of their actions. Cheap energy leads to waste and weaning people from wasting it is a tough job. Thus the issue of TOU verses flat rates and who pays what and when is what utilities and PUC’s are struggling with. The dilemma of getting energy reduction by the American public comes down to determining at what price point will people stop wasting energy. One man’s waste is another man’s need, but no one wants to pay more than they have to.

    This can be shown with the examples given in this blog and it’s comments. Using the example of 73 KWh used by a 100 watts appliance, one can calculate it into dollars. It adds up to about $8.76 per month at the typical California flat rate of $0.12 per KWh. Most people will not blink at paying that amount of cash out of their monthly budgets. For simplicity here, it could go as high as $20.44 per month if the example of a Tier 4 electric cost at $0.28 per KWh is used based on daily 24 hour periods, which is not a typical use for Tiered rates. Translating the KWh to dollars presents the issue in a value everyone can more easily understand.

    The issue of what happens when TOU rates are allowed to float at a free market prices is the big question. In the recent real world example that really happened in Texas a few weeks ago. The cost per mega-watt-hour that utilities plaid to their suppliers jumped from a typical average of $30 to $3000. Each mega-watt-hour is 1 million KWh so if the above usage dollars were multiplied by 100 and allowed to happen, then you would see an immediate outcry by the public. That shoe may not have dropped in Texas yet because this month’s bills may not have gone out yet. Next month, we could begin to hear the outcry from customers on the Texas volunteer TOU rate plans. They may get a surprise in their next bills.

    One man’s waste is another man’s need will always comes into play. At the above real world emergency prices, waste becomes a big financial issue and people will move to eliminate it on their own with whatever available tools they can muster. Again, it is getting people to understand the benefits, consequences, and cost of their actions. Cheap energy leads to waste and weaning people from wasting it is a tough job.

  19. Richard, fair enough. Rereading my “..It is disappointing that your smart meter couldn’t really share any of its smarts with you” – that came off wrong, perhaps. All I meant was, more realtime feedback could help, if the homeowner was interested. Aggregating yesterday’s use is showing you water under the bridge; if it collects every 15m, then allowing the consumer to see that data realtime would be beneficial, at least to some.

  20. I to believe customers need to know that information real-time. The technology is now here as well as the means to timely inform the users when the prices will or are changing. That could be as simple as a tweet. The meter tells you what you are using and then other equipment, that the customer owns, takes action based on what the customer’s preferences are. Feeding the actual billing meter readings real-time to the customer has been in place now for a couple of decades with sophisticated commercial and large industrial users. The new technology that is now in place offers this option for all customers. C&I customers can get this information real-time even sometimes before the utility does feed directly to equipment they own and operate. It is doable now.

  21. Dear Gary,
    My apologies for being blunt, but you come across here as being spoiled and helpless. All the meter can do for you is to show you where you are costing yourself the most money. Once you know that your pool is sucking big dollars, it is up to you to look around and see if perhaps you could do a passive solar setup, or a heat pump system, or some more efficient circulation solution, etc.
    Additionally, if you plug in your computers and video games into power strips that can be easily accessed, you could turn them off each night to avoid their transformers sucking power while they are not being used (they are electricity vampires).
    If you and your family are not willing to give up any of your energy-expensive habits, you SHOULD pay the price for ruining the other taxpayers’ environment. Fair is fair. And all that cheap coal generation is not just releasing CO2 and NOx into the air, but mercury and other heavy metal contaminants into the air and the water. Take a look around at what happens with the fly ash, and the “escapes”.
    If you consciously choose to remain an energy hog, stop whining about the cost. All a meter can do is show you the situation accurately, and it sounds as though it has done that job just fine.

    1. This is the great mystery in all of this isn’t it, Margaret? Those of you who want to save the planet from itself are more than willing to spend all of my money attempting to do so. Yes I could do all those things you recommend from the easiest such as turning off equipment on power strips to the most expensive swapping out all my HVAC and swimming pool equipment. But I cannot escape tiered rates, peak day pricing or other progressive strategies to force changes in my lifestyle to fit your own social mores that are forced upon me.

      I confess I am becoming progressively more libertarian in these things as the Government forces my utility to intrude further into my lifestyle.

  22. Gary,
    Think of how much you could save if you switch from cold beer to something which doesn’t need your old refrigerator, especially red wine such as merlot or cabernet sauvignon. At least pay for a monthly trip to Napa valley.

  23. “the entire purpose of utilities is to supply energy to meet demand so if California is unable to meet its demand requirements consumers will not use less they will simply move.” <– however if the peak is driven harder than the mean and trough then you'll get higher infrastructure costs irrespective of energy use. On simplistic tariffs this is reflected by higher static prices. On Time-of-Use or market exposed tariffs this is reflected in interval pricing.

  24. Solar MD – a minor correction to your comment. The primary motive of smart meters is not remote load control, or interval data collection/time of use pricing, or even smart appliance management.

    The primary motive is remote meter reading. Smart meters eliminate the need for armies of meter readers to prowl through people’s backyards, or drive slowly through neighborhoods picking up low power signals.

    Remote disconnect is also much less expensive than rolling a truck every time they have to shut off service between customer moves, or for non-payment.

    I believe time of use pricing combined with customer awareness via in home displays or real time apps will be a secondary driver, and ultimately beneficial.

  25. I’m not lucky enough to have a smart meter, so I was wondering if you’d be willing to send me some of your data to look at, or perhaps a screenshot of what you’ve been able to see.

    I’m an electrical engineering major, and am looking at ways to make an electric vehicle charger ‘smart’ so it can help even out your peaks, so you won’t have so many and have to pay high tiered rates to charge your battery. So I’m looking for data in excel spreadsheets (or similar form) so I can put the data in a program to use for my simulation. Do you think you could help me out?

    I would really appreciate it!

  26. Gary,

    Thank you for clearing up the mystery for me. I am invested in a company that has similar technology and I assumed when PG&E rolled out their SmartMeter program that it would include a time-of-use structure so that we consumers could modify our habbits. I’m thinking about buying an all-electric car and would charge it in the middle of the night. The problem is, I’m in the > 200% base-line useage, so my last Kw is charged at .40. That means, regardless of when I use my eletricity, any incremental use will cost me .40/Kw which makes the math to buy the electrical not as compelling (still somewhat compelling vs. driving my Tahoe, but I digress).

    So, here’s the question (and maybe someone from PG&E can answer), when will the “smartness” of the meters be used as a powerful tool by PG&E to allow conusmers to make real decisions about WHEN they use electricity (and before all you Green folks jump all over me for not toeing the absolute reduction line–there’s plenty of excess green energy being generated in the middle of the night that now goes unused).

    Thanks again,

    Sam

  27. Gary

    Thanks for this informative update. We have linked our Independent Review of Smart Meter Technology to this post for the personal experience you write. Chris at Mapawatt and I often exchange links to any reasonable analysis.

    http://open4energy.com/forum/home-energy-saving-smart-meters/independent-review-of-smart-meters

    I have had our our home meter for over a year. We did the things needed to minimize our energy use a while back, so have only recently even looked at the smart meter data. Saving energy required actions on our part, actions that no Smart Meter could work out for us.

    But, in fairness to the data, now that I am looking at it. It does serve as an interesting validation of our activities – and is much better data than the monthly totals which we initially relied on.

    I am going to be following up with PG&E about the percentage of residents with Smart Meters that are using/log in regularly to their on-line account. I did notice that PG&E were running a TV spot promoting these accounts – or smart meters – and I wondered what was behind this?

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