Chris Faust thinks San Diego Gas & Electric’s approach to installing the new, much-ballyhooed smart meters isn’t “smart.” In fact, he alleges, it’s dishonest — part of the utility’s campaign to raise rates whenever possible and by whatever means it takes.
On the afternoon of February 8, as he stood in the front yard of his house in Bay Park, he was approached by an SDG&E employee who’d just stepped out of a typical service truck used by the utility. According to Faust, the clean-cut young man said he needed to perform “routine maintenance” of the meter at the side of the house. “When I saw this guy with a clean uniform — he didn’t look like a maintenance guy — my bullshit radar went on. I’m an old guy, 62. When you’ve been around awhile, you get an intuitive sense when something just doesn’t seem right.”
Faust was puzzled. As far as he knew, there’d been neither a gas leak nor a meter malfunction. He says that he hadn’t received a notice from the utility. He asked if, perhaps, his wife had made an appointment, but the SDG&E man (whom Faust described as “charming, gracious, and polite”) replied that no appointment had been set. And when the increasingly suspicious homeowner asked just what the maintenance entailed, an admission finally came forth: this unannounced visit was for the purpose of replacing the meter.
Faust says that when he told the meter man that he wasn’t interested in the swap, he was informed that he had the right to refuse — at least temporarily. However, he was advised that eventually the utility would shut off his gas at some undetermined time, which was cryptically linked to completion of the conversion process. Faust says that the employee attempted to “intimidate” him by warning that if Faust initially refused to allow the exchange, SDG&E would enter his home to “inspect” his appliances for some sort of “compliance,” the nature of which wasn’t explained. Faust says he replied that neither access nor the utility’s maintenance responsibilities extend into one’s home, whereupon the worker “acquiesced,” reluctantly agreeing that the company did not have the right of entry.
Exactly what rights does SDG&E have with respect to the meter on a customer’s property? For an answer to that question, I contacted Michael Shames, the executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network, a not-for-profit group that describes its mission as, among other things, protecting consumers from “utility abuse.” Shames, whose organization takes credit for saving San Diego consumers “billions of dollars in unfair utility rate hikes” since 1983, seemed unsympathetic to Faust’s complaints. According to Shames — whose battles with the utility have been numerous, lengthy, and well documented — SDG&E has wide latitude when it comes to meters. He states that, because the San Diego monopoly owns the meters, it is entitled — through the jiggery-pokery of easement law — to get access to them as it pleases without notice. Further, says Shames, the company can repair or replace meters without approval. The sole right of the customer, he opines, “is the right to an accurate meter.”
For its part, the utility, which is one of five subsidiaries of the energy behemoth Sempra, has little to say about Faust’s allegations of lies and intimidation in the swap-out process. SDG&E’s local media gatekeeper, April Bolduc, rebuffed my attempts to uncover details that might validate (or cast doubt on) Faust’s account. Apparently peeved about a past story that delved into the company’s practices, she announced, “We don’t do interviews with the Reader because factual information doesn’t make it into articles.” She suggested that I go to the company’s website, which she claimed has “the answers to all questions” about the smart-meter installation process. Before shunting me off to the website, however, she did submit that the company has an “extensive” training program for its meter-swappers.
Just what is the extensive training? Does it, as Faust suggests, consist of a carefully crafted, pseudo-sales script intended to deceive and intimidate customers? Does it provide the installers with responses to objections — prepare them with responses to “noncompliant” customers, those who ask inconvenient or unexpected questions? The website to which I was directed doesn’t say. Perhaps these just aren’t “frequently asked” questions. It does, however, furnish clues as to how SDG&E is selling the smart-meter concept to San Diegans.
According to the smart-meter website, the new meters constitute a “mandatory service upgrade,” albeit one that, SDG&E claims, “can help save energy on high-use days, keeping the lights on for everyone.” The website also proclaims, “Smart meters can also help you make choices to save money on your energy bill every day,” yet goes on to assure customers, “There are no plans to charge customers for time-of-day billing.” But if energy consumers aren’t penalized for peak-hour usage, what incentive do they have, one might ask, to do their laundry at 3:00 a.m. or forgo the air conditioner in midafternoon? Chris Faust has a theory. He’s convinced that the company will abandon its current flat-rate billing in favor of billing that — in the name of energy conservation and brownout mitigation — will penalize those who choose to consume energy during conventional hours.
Faust, who bought his home on Garfield Road in the mid-’90s, alleges that not only does SDG&E employ lies and intimidation to effect the changeover but that the end result — the mandatory service upgrade — is merely another ploy to raise San Diegans’ rates. Faust says that the swap-out technicians (whether from the utility or its contractor, VSI Meter Services) are part of the sales process wherein locals are, in effect, being sold a bill of goods.
I asked Michael Shames if he’d heard from locals with similar experiences. “I think it might be an aberration,” he says. Shames is an advocate of the smart meters. He doesn’t believe that increased profits for the utility and benefits to consumers are mutually exclusive, noting, “This is one of those rare situations when I support what SDG&E is doing.” He does note, however, that the changeover adds $650 million to the company’s rate base, which, loosely defined, is the valuation of a utility’s assets for the purpose of determining the rates a utility is permitted to charge its customers. (Whether the smart-meter costs should be properly considered part of SDG&E’s assets — as a necessary component of operating expenses — continues to be a point of contention.)
Chris Faust, who says that he’s followed the utility’s machinations over the years, thinks that the swap-out process is just another example of SDG&E’s “duplicitous way of doing business — a way to raise rates without ‘raising rates.’ ” He notes, “Look at the Sunrise Powerlink project. SDG&E originally said they needed the transmission lines to bring renewable energy into the area, but they have no such commitment in their updated [Public Utilities Commission] filing. In any case, they can rely on RECs [renewable energy credits]. RECs allow a renewable generator to sell electricity to one buyer and the RECs to other utilities. In some cases, SDG&E could buy the energy and resell it to other states like Arizona — it would never reach San Diego — but [SDG&E] still gets the RECs. So the Sunrise Powerlink is superfluous. In the historical context, it just reinforces the personality of the company.”
Faust doesn’t know when SDG&E will be back on Garfield Road to give him the ultimatum, but given his experience to date, it’s likely that whenever he looks at his new smart meter he’ll see an offer he couldn’t refuse.