Automated gas meter-reading effort faces challenges

Southern California Gas Co.’s plan to fully deploy a network of upgraded gas meters faces hurdles in some parts of Orange County as local officials assert they have the authority to approve where pole-mounted wireless transmitting units should go and how they should look, the Register has learned.

Municipalities including Laguna Beach and Newport Beach have been involved in lengthy talks with SoCalGas over the setup of poles and antennas that collect data from “advanced” meters at homes and most businesses and send the data to the gas company.

Cities across Southern California are in various stages of shifting to the advanced meter networks, which eventually are expected to eliminate the need for human meter readers.

SoCalGas is still in the process of obtaining permits to install network units in Laguna Beach and Newport Beach. Buena Park has had the technology since late 2012. The network also has been set up in Irvine, but some recent installations were needed to fill gaps in the coverage. The systems in Seal Beach and Huntington Beach are works in progress.

The local permitting challenges are the latest bump to emerge in the gas company’s massive effort to upgrade millions of old analog meters and phase out the process of sending workers through neighborhoods to read the units manually. Over the last six years, SoCalGas personnel assigned to meter reading have been reduced from more than 1,000 to about 70, company figures show.

The meter upgrades, which began in late 2012, drew opposition from a major watchdog group and the utility workers union after they were proposed eight years ago. And more recently, customers complained about big hikes in bills in January and February that some suspect may be tied to the meter changes. The company said the large bills were primarily due to cold weather that required more indoor heating.

SoCalGas says that the advanced meters – which, in most cases, are attachments or “modules” added to existing meters – are highly accurate and cost-effective, and that their roll out has been a success. The company says it is 80 percent complete with the installation of advanced-meter modules in Orange County.

But company officials also have said that recent changes in meter-reading schedules, in part related to the transition to the upgraded meters, resulted in longer billing cycles for some customers and larger bills.

“Customer bills are always reconciled and customers are not billed for more gas than they’ve used,” said Melissa Bailey, a SoCalGas spokeswoman, in an email. “If one billing cycle was longer, than another one will be shorter.”

In recent weeks, several customers told the Register that they’ve received corrected bills after gas company representatives told them their usage had been estimated – some for as long as six consecutive billing cycles. Some customers said they were told the estimates were because of a shortage of meter readers, while others said they were not given any explanation. The company has noted estimates of usage for billing purposes are permitted at times under state regulations.

Jerry Acosta, a spokesman for the Utility Workers Union of America, which represents meter readers, said he is not aware of any personnel shortages. Bailey, of SoCalGas, said “there are enough meter readers to handle” areas that are without a fully deployed, advanced-meter network, as well as customers who opt out of the program.

However, a Feb. 26 report filed by SoCalGas with the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the company, hinted at a link between possible delays in getting local permits for transmitting equipment and the continuing need to maintain meter readers.

The gas company indicated in the report that as many as 245 of its planned 4,600 data collection units haven’t been installed because some municipalities are requiring the utility to obtain permits.

SoCalGas has claimed it is essentially exempt from obtaining local permission to install its data collection sites because the company is regulated by the state utilities commission, according to the report and what some local city officials say they’ve have been told by the gas company.

“If these municipalities continue to assert their current positions, they will considerably delay or prevent the network installation timeline,” for the roughly 245 network sites, according to the report.

That means SoCalGas will likely have to maintain certain functions including manual meter reading and related billing systems for “far longer than was anticipated,” the report says, which would “negatively impact expected operational benefits.”

Among the benefits the system offers are operational cost savings and environmental benefits from removing 1,000 vehicles used by meter readers – traveling nearly 7 million miles a year – from the streets, Bailey said. The upgraded meters also are considered more accurate and “eliminate potential for human error in reading the meters,” she added.

The SoCalGas report warns of potential problems in completing the state-approved system if local agencies are allowed to determine where data collection units can go and how they look.

“This discretionary permitting process,” the report says. “would effectively give a municipality the unilateral right to significantly modify the planned location or design of the DCUs and even preclude the installation of DCUs by the utility.”

Utilities commission spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said in an email that SoCalGas’ interpretation of the permitting situation is correct but offered no specifics.

Several Orange County cities including Laguna Beach have remained firm in defending their permitting prerogatives.

The state’s utilities commission approval of SoCalGas’ advanced-meter project “didn’t take away local jurisdictions’, cities’ discretion for regulating time, place and manner,” referring to the proposed transmission sites, said Scott Drapkin, Laguna Beach’s principal planner.

Gas company officials have been working with city officials there for more than a year to place roughly 20 wireless transmitting units around the city. City officials have been concerned the installations will interfere with ocean and canyon views.

Generally, new poles can be 24 feet or higher, with a data-collection unit, antennas and a solar panel up top, according to some permit applications filed by the gas company. In some instances, data collection units and antennas are mounted on existing light poles, without solar panels – an option cities tend to prefer because they aren’t as bulky.

The number of meters transmitting to a single data collection unit varies, but on average, there are about 1,300 meters for every unit, the gas company’s Bailey said.

The proposed units in Laguna Beach would be mounted on new and existing poles, Drapkin said in an email. But city officials are seeking the “least intrusive installation, designs and locations,” he said.

In Newport Beach, gas company officials “felt they didn’t have to go through a review process” when discussions began two years ago, said Jim Campbell, the city’s principal planner.

After some “healthy disagreement,” both sides agreed that transmitting units can be mounted on streetlights, “which helps reduce scale,” Campbell said.

SoCalGas has submitted permit applications for about 20 of its 30 proposed wireless sites, the city says. And it’s possible most permits will be issued within the next month to allow installation to begin.

Bailey, the gas company spokeswoman, said in a prepared statement that since the start of the advanced-meter roll out the gas company has “worked collaboratively with all jurisdictions in our service territory to receive the necessary permits for installations of our communications network/Data Collection units.”

The city of Irvine has worked with the gas company to locate “the best locations” for the wireless units, said city spokeswoman Kim Mohr, in an email. After complaints about a couple of sites, SoCalGas “worked quickly” to relocate the units, she added.

SoCalGas received slightly more than 220 complaints and questions after installing more than 3,400 data-collection sites across its service area, according to the company’s Feb. 26 report. Complaints touched on aesthetics, glare or location.

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