PG&E HO recently conducted an exclusive interview with California, United States-based Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) to find out more about this 101-year-old utility giant.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) has recently been in the news after it has received the thumbs up from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for its advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) SmartMeter™ program.

PG&E, a dual commodity supplier of electricity and gas, serves 15 million people across a 70,000 square mile (181,000 km2) service area in northern and central California.

To date the company has relied on monthly manual meter readings, with a meter reading workforce between 800 to 900 employees.

The new SmartMeter™ program involves the installation of 9.3 million SmartMeter™ devices for the utility’s 5.1 million electricity and 4.2 million gas customers over the next 5 years, with rollout due to start in November .

The program has its origins in the energy crisis in California in the early 2000s, when a working group was established to investigate pricing signals following the CPUC’s realization that residential and small commercial customers were only able to measure their usage monthly and therefore unable to use energy wisely.

This working group created a framework for evaluating an advanced metering program and the utilities filed several business cases over the next couple of years, which eventually resulted in the approval for PG&E of the SmartMeter™ program.

The deployment of SmartMeter™ technology will provide enormous benefits to customers, who will now receive usage information to better understand and manage their bills, and will be able to participate in energy efficiency and demand response programs. They will experience less inconvenience for monthly meter readings, experience faster outage detection and restoration times, and have the opportunity to turn services on and off remotely. In addition a reduction of delayed, inaccurate and estimated bills can be expected.

As the system will result in a considerable increase in data – residential electricity meters will be polled hourly and gas meters daily, and commercial customers as frequently as every 15 minutes – PG&E has also recently upgraded its CRM and billing applications with SPL’s Customer Care and Billing software.

This upgrade will allow PG&E to access customer information more efficiently and offer customers time-varying rates. Indeed the success of the billing system in handling the data volume is one of the key challenges as it has not been tested at this scale before, says Jana Corey, Director AMI Initiatives at PG&E.

Corey believes that as a result of the program customers will start developing more interest in end-use technologies and she predicts enormous growth for this market over the next couple of years.

Another key challenge that Corey mentions is to ensure that the field deployment functions like a well-oiled machine, with a deployment requirement of 10,000 meters per day. Thus, she says, the project is largely dependant on the field workers, who are critical to the deployment happening. “There needs to be an absolute alignment of management and the team behind this project and to date it has been gratifying that management and regulatory support has been thrown behind this project.”

Corey believes that SmartMeter™ project’s future lies in “the establishment of a strong platform for data gathering and management of this to improve energy use,” and that “this will evolve into a great public policy tool.”

About the current meter reading workforce:
In five years more than 40% of the PG&E’s workforce will be eligible for retirement, so many job opportunities will present themselves within the company. Funding is being made available for job retraining of meter readers interested in other positions within the utility. As meter reading positions become vacant with normal attrition, PG&E fills them with temporary union workers.

About the program:

  • Half of the current meters can be reused and half of the meters will be new, but all will be retrofitted with a communication device.
  • Meter and communication module deployment will begin in November 2006. For customers with SmartMeter™ devices, manual meter reading  will continue until April 2007.
  • Billing using new meter data will begin 4/15/07.
  • Realization of benefits to begin April/May 2007: Annual SmartMeter™ project benefits include reducing peak electric load by about 450 MW,  less reliance on fossil-fuel generation during peak periods, and elimination of estimated bills.
    • PG&E is using DCSI (Distribution Control Systems, Inc.) for electric modules and network and Hexagram, Inc. for gas meter modules and  network (both subsidiaries of ESCO Technologies Inc); Wellington Power Corp. of Pittsburgh, PA to install SmartMeter™ devices and  network equipment; WACS, LLC of Minneapolis, MN for AMI IT Interface System; and IBM of Armonk, NY for project management and  system integration.
    • PG&E will begin deployment of the SmartMeter™ network and devices later this year in Bakersfield, which is the southern end of its service  area, then move north.  Next year, other deployment teams will begin in other areas, with deployment completed in 2011.

PG&E Fast facts:

  • 123,054 circuit miles of electric distribution lines and 18,610 circuit miles of interconnected transmission lines
  • 40,123 miles of natural gas distribution pipelines and 6,136 miles of transportation pipelines
  • 5 million electric customer accounts (expected to grow to 5.3 million by 2011)
  • 4.1 million natural gas customers
  • 5.2 million households