Here Come the Smartmeters

by Todd Walton, January 30, 2008

Our PG&E bill came today, and not only has the cost of electricity jumped (up) since the recent outages of early January, but there was a notification of PG&E filing "for approval to recover in rates the cost of the smartmeter program upgrade." Stay with me here. I, too, usually throw these little notices in the recycling box, figuring there's no way to stop the utility monopoly from having its way with us. But this notification is so infuriating, I feel compelled to rabble rouse about it.

PG&E is not a public utility. Right? PG&E is a huge for-profit (lots of profit) corporation. Yet they want our supposedly democratically elected government's blessing and permission, it says here, to recover the cost of upgrading their non-public equipment that will, they further admit, save them a fortune when it comes to figuring out how much to charge us each month.

What are smartmeters? They are electronic meters providing bi-directional communications (between our house and PG&E headquarters), advanced power measurement and management capabilities, and a software-controllable disconnect switch. They will empower PG&E to remotely turn our power on or off, read our usage information, detect a service outage, detect the unauthorized use of electricity, and change the maximum amount of electricity we can demand at any time. Among other things.

In Italy where the world's largest smart meter deployment was undertaken by Enel SpA, Italy's largest utility with some 27 million customers, Enel estimated the cost of the project (2000-2005) at approximately two billion Euros. In 2006 and 2007, Enel reported savings in operation costs of 500 million Euros per year, a four-year payback on their investment. Wow!

So why should we have to pay (collectively) 623 million bucks for smartmeters? And that's just for starters. We all know PG&E will send us another notification a couple years hence asking for permission to recover hundreds of millions in cost overrides. And the CPUC (the California Public Utilities Commission, chartered to act in the best interests of the citizenry) will undoubtedly give them permission to do anything they want to do.

Of course, the CPUC could say to PG&E, "No, since you'll be reaping huge gains from this investment and firing lots of meter readers, you'll have to pay for that upgrade from your massive corporate profits, and you can't increase rates to do so. Oh, and you also have to spend more of your profits on pre-emptive actions to reduce lengthy power outages. And don't say you can't afford it. That's nonsense."

Okay, so that's a fantasy. But did you know that when the current Bush took office, one of his very first acts was to push through Congress a bill protecting the mother company of PG&E, known as PG&E Corp, from the enormous losses incurred by PG&E during the Enron plundering of California. That's right. Mama PG&E can reap huge profits from PG&E Jr., but she is not responsible for PG&E Jr.'s losses. Nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you own the government.

The notification that came with our bill goes on to say, "...beginning January 1, 2009, and continuing for 15 years," our electricity bills are going to increase (even more than they already were going to increase) to pay for smartmeters. Never mind that the meters will pay for themselves in a third of that time.

This has got me thinking about how much of my life in this supposedly capitalist society is controlled by monopolies. Renting our non-solar house in rural Mendocino, our high-speed Internet, our basic phone service, and our electricity are all the purview of monopolies. For all intents and purposes, the gas for our car and our propane for cooking and heating are controlled by monopolies pretending to be separate companies competing with each other. If they were really competing, prices would vary more than a penny or two from one gas station to the next. Health insurance? Only one company would offer the likes of me coverage. Emergency airlift services? Two companies around here, and you'd better sign up for both or the dispatcher may save your life with the company you aren't signed up with and you'll be out a fortune.

Hence, almost all my essential needs are being met by monopolies. And they all seem to charge the absolute maximum I can possibly imagine paying. How do they know? They crunch data. And it is that same kind of crunchable data that smartmeters will provide PG&E for the purpose of optimizing their profits whilst minimizing expenses. Where is this so-called free market we hear so much about?

But I remember that a first class letter still goes anywhere in America for 41¢ — thank you, socialism. And spring is just around the corner, so our utility bills are bound to come down a bit before they rocket up again.

And my dreams are still mine. I do dream of a time when circumstances make it both necessary and feasible for our democratically elected governments to send out notifications declaring that all monopolies of essential services are henceforth the property of the people they serve and shall nevermore be for profit, but only for the greater good. Then we will have, in even less than four years, that renaissance we've all been waiting for.

Todd Walton's web site is underthetablebooks.com.

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