When in doubt, sue – and slow down.

Pacific Gas & Electric has "paused" installing smart meters in the Bakersfield area because of complaints from residents that their new Pacific Gas & Electric smart meters are overcharging them. PG&E denies the allegations, noting that the rise in electricity bills some customers have seen come from other factors, such as regulator-approved rate hikes and air conditioning spikes during heat waves. Nonetheless, it has put a halt on new meters for now, utility spokesman Paul Moreno said Tuesday.

Complaints for power have now taken the form of a lawsuit.

Pete Flores, of Bakersfield, claims in the suit filed last week in Kern County Superior Court that ever since PG&E installed a smart meter at his home, he's been charged for more electricity than he has used. Right now Flores – who says his average bill as jumped from about $200 a month to about $500 to $600 a month since he got a smart meter – is the only named plaintiff.

But his attorney, Michael Louis Kelly of the El Segundo, Calif.-based law firm Kirtland & Packard, is seeking class action status for the lawsuit to include every PG&E customer who has a smart meter and thinks they've been overcharged, saying the utility needs to prove that those two-way communicating meters aren't the cause.

"PG&E's taking a position that nothing's wrong, yet there are thousands and thousands of people saying there is," Kelly said Tuesday.

PG&E has maintained from the beginning that its meters have proven to be accurate in multiple tests, from the factory floor to in the field. The utility points to several electricity rate hikes in the previous year, as well as hot weather that likely caused people to use more power to run air conditioners, as the likely causes of the increases (see Green Light post).

"The allegations in the lawsuit are untrue and have no merit," said utility spokesman Denny Boyles in an official statement. "PG&E's and manufacturers' quality assurance processes show the meters are accurate and are performing well."

PG&E's $2.2 billion, 10-million smart meter deployment continues apace in other regions, Moreno noted. That rollout is now hitting about 12,000 to 15,000 meters per day, or one every two seconds, Andrew Tang, PG&E's director of smart energy web, said last week (see Smart Grid's Low-Tech Savings: Fewer Truck Rolls).

Still, the tempest in Bakersfield underscores the public challenges utilities may face as they deploy smart grid systems such as smart meters. Utilities need approval from state regulators to increase their electricity rates to pay for the cost of such projects. Claims that the equipment is malfunctioning, whether true or false, could complicate that process.

As for the lawsuit, it isn't limiting its sights to PG&E. Other defendants named in the complaint include Wellington Energy Inc., the installer of the meters, as well as "DOE Defendants 1-100," or any company that might have played any role in the utility's smart meter deployment, from wireless communications to back-end software, as well as unspecified roles.

Kelly said his law firm has been contacted by hundreds of people who have PG&E smart meters that have complaints about their power bills. That's in line with numbers of Bakersfield residents who have brought similar complaints to California State Sen. Dean Florez, who brought the issue to public attention last month.

Florez (no relation to plaintiff Pete Flores) asked the California Public Utilities Commission to force PG&E to halt its smart meter deployment. The CPUC didn't do that, but it did order the utility to find a third party expert to "test and validate meter and billing accuracy" in Bakersfield.

PG&E, for its part, sees smart meters as giving customers more insight into their power bills, and thus helping them save energy, Boyles noted. Right now customers can go outside and see their current usage on a digital readout, he said.

In the future, of course, PG&E and many other utilities deploying smart meters want to link them to energy control systems in customers' homes and businesses. That could offer far greater energy savings, including automated  

PG&E is deploying smart meters made by General Electric and Landis+Gyr and networked by Silver Spring Networks. It is also replacing some previously deployed meters, which include meters deployed in Bakersfield in 2007 that used technology from Distribution Control Systems Inc.

Switzerland-based Landis+Gyr issued a statement Tuesday saying that it has installed about 300 million meters – and about 1.5 million remote-connect smart meters to utility customers throughout North America.

"No issues regarding design, quality, accuracy or functionality have been reported by any customer," Stan March, senior vice president of corporate communications, said in a prepared statement.