A California man has filed suit against Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E), alleging that the company's SmartMeter program consistently overcharges him for gas and electric services. Pete Flores, of Bakersfield, says the problem is so out of hand that he now pays more for utilities than he does for his mortgage.

SmartMeter is PG&E's automated meter reading program, a technology employed by many large energy companies. Automated meter reading allows utility providers to collect consumption data remotely, from a central location. Automated meters recoup the time, money, and manpower needed to make physical trips to manually read each customer's meter. The first automated meter reading program, Metertek, was launched in 1977.

PG&E rolled out the SmartMeter in early 2007, starting in Bakersfield, with the eventual goal of implementing a pricing system that varies depending on the time of day and season.

The suit has been brewing for some time. PG&E has received so many complaints of overcharges that the utilities behemoth established an answer center in its Bakersfield office, where consumers can go to discuss questions or concerns regarding their SmartMeters. Last month, over 200 PG&E customers descended on a public hearing to protest that their meters were malfunctioning and causing their astronomical energy charges.

Michael Kelly, of Kirtland & Packard, LLP, is representing the class. He said the firm received several complaints from area residents with abnormally large utility bills.

In addition to PG&E, the suit names as a defendant Wellington Energy, which installed the SmartMeters. Wellington, a subsidiary of Pittsburgh-based Wellington Power, is so proud of the SmartMeter that it boasts about the device on its homepage, which describes the automated meter reading program as the largest of its kind in North America. Wellington says that the meter allows PG&E to measure consumers' energy use frequently one a day for gas and once an hour for electric. The site says that SmartMeters enhanc[e] environmental sustainability while maintaining high levels of electric reliability.

The suit charges PG&E with fraud, false advertising, unfair competition, and negligence. Flores says that PG&E has been less than honest about the meters' accuracy, has been unresponsive to complaints, and has covered up SmartMeter-related rate increases. Kelly accuses PG&E of whistling past the graveyard, saying the company has taken the position that there is absolutely no problem here at all.

Indeed, PG&E spokesman Denny Boyles said in a statement that the allegations in the lawsuit are untrue and have no merit. The company plans to hire hire an independent party to review the meters' accuracy, which it believes will confirm that the meters are working properly.

State Senator Dean Florez, who convened the hearing of frustrated consumers, asked PG&E and the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) about the SmartMeter complaints, but was basically blown off. He told a local news affiliate that news of the suit doesn't come as a shock. PG&Es case to the PUC for smart meters was so shot with bias against consumers that it doesnt surprise me that PG&E is being taken to court, Florez said.