23 January 2011

Is PG&E SmartMeter Data Manually Keyed Into Their Billing System?

My family and I were out of town for most of December. We intentionally powered off everything except the security alarm system, for both energy efficiency and safety sake. Upon our return home, the indoor temperature was cold and everything was still off, as expected. I was eager to see the power bill from PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric, our region's energy utility), hoping to find a significant drop in our cost for the billing period encompassing our absence.

I was pleased to see the electricity cost was just a fraction of our usual amount. However, I noticed the natural gas cost was about the same as usual. Even more bewildering, the printed statement had separated the December and January portions of the billing period, with most of the cost incurred in December, when we were away for all but 3 days of that part of the billing period. Our home's central heating system uses natural gas.

I decided to call PG&E and ask about the discrepancy. I first reached a regular customer service rep on the phone. I explained my concern and the rep seemed to understand. Upon checking the account, he mentioned that because we have a SmartMeter installed, my call had to be transferred to the SmartMeter department. Needing to be transferred to someone else because a SmartMeter was in use seemed slightly odd, but I was eager to talk with someone, so at the time, I didn't think much about it. I did ask the first customer service rep whether I was being transferred to a live person, and he said, "yes."

Well, I instead got transferred into an automated menu system, which did not please me, but it took just one menu selection to reach a live person in the SmartMeter department. I explained my case and the SmartMeter rep seemed to understand my concern. First, she reminded me that all the data she was going to give me over the phone was immediately available to me via the PG&E SmartMeter website. Next, we talked about what the gas consumption data looked like around the dates that my family and I were still on travel and when we returned. She verbally confirmed the number of therms consumed for each day, indicating the SmartMeter data clearly showed there was zero gas usage while we were away, and normal daily gas usage upon our return. She seemed to be pleased that the data was so precise and clear.

I then asked why the December gas cost was so much more than the January gas cost in my bill, since we were only home for a few days in December. She began to recite a stock answer of the cost of gas varying on different days.

I didn't accept that vague answer and pressed further, asking whether the day by day SmartMeter data of gas consumption for the few days in December when we were home, which she had just verbally recited to me, was adding up to the total therms listed in the December segment of my bill, since that was the root of my inquiry. She quickly added up the therms from the December SmartMeter data and said, they add up to thirteen (13) therms. But the bill clearly lists the December usage as thirty one (31) therms, I stated. Her next statement first confused me, then triggered a wave of disbelief: "Oh, the numbers got transposed. I'll get that fixed."

My confusion was due to my initial expectation of either an explanation blaming an algorithmic issue with the system or perhaps a simple stonewalling of my inquiry. I got neither. Instead, she was saying that the one and the three in thirteen used therms was accidentally swapped to instead be a three and a one to list thirty one used therms! In my initial confusion, I silently thought, "what kind of modern computer system accidentally transposes numerical digits?"

It was a little later, after the call was over, that I realized by inference: the SmartMeter system and PG&E's established billing and customer accounts systems aren't truly integrated, and quite likely, involve people manually keying in usage data, which explains how such a digits transposition error could occur.

Looking back at how the initial PG&E customer rep had to transfer me to an entirely separate SmartMeter customer support system, with separate live rep and separate automated voice menu, and then also considering past news reports of how PG&E has been phasing in communities with the SmartMeter system over a period of months and years, it does seem to suggest there is not a full fledged integration between old and new systems. Even worse, it seems to be a manual, human data entry process, which carries a high risk of many errors.

To PG&E's credit, the SmartMeter customer service rep said she had corrected my bill during my call.

I'm well aware of the nationwide concern of SmartMeter installations. Most people believe the devices have been intentionally programmed to cheat them, as significantly higher power bills seem to appear around the time the devices are installed. There are also a few people who further believe the devices, which rely on wireless cell phone data transmission technology, are causing health problems, particularly headaches and sleeplessness. These concerns are popular and politicians are taking action against some utility providers.

Frankly, I think these concerns of inaccurate metering and negative health effects are completely bogus. These are intricately engineered devices, extensively tested and certified by independent labs, that are installed by the millions at people's homes. It would be erratic and simply stupid for any major manufacturer or utility company to either intentionally cheat customers within the device, or put the public at a health risk. To me, the concerns clearly stem from a lack of awareness, a natural suspicion of new technology, a need to scapegoat the woes of a depressed economy, and a heavy dose of irrationality, which I firmly believe we all exhibit. Sort of along the lines of Carl Sagan's depiction of "science as a candle in the dark," which was the byline to the title of his book, "The Demon Haunted World". Similarly, this feels like it is an off-shoot of "The Assault on Reason," as described by Al Gore. I really don't think the SmartMeter devices are the problem.

What I do think is happening is a shoddy and incomplete back-end system implementation, in which the new SmartMeter infrastructure does not play nice with the older existing customer billing system, and quite possibly, a reliance on manual data entry for critical processes such as the conversion of energy usage data into presumably accurate billing costs.

I have worked for high tech organizations for over twenty years, with most of that experience in enterprise software firms. I'm well aware of the challenges of implementing new business systems, particularly when a legacy system is already in place. However, this same experience also informs me of the myriad of potential technology solutions that would allow for some sort of direct, albeit interim, data integration between an old and new system. It could be costly and/or complicated, but is absolutely technically feasible.

The likelihood that PG&E does not have such an interim integration should be of deep concern to the paying customers of PG&E throughout the San Francisco Bay Area region and beyond.

I should point out that I have yet to look up online whether anyone else has suspected the same, and whether anyone has either proven or debunked it. I welcome everyone's feedback and thoughts. If there is authoritative information out there on this matter, I would appreciate any leads.