PG&E Pays $390,000 Fine for Trying to Spy on SmartMeter Critics

Monday, April 08, 2013
William "Ralph" Devereaux

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) might have successfully infiltrated a group of SmartMeter critics in the Bay Area if the executive in charge of the controversial program didn’t do a dumb thing.

But when SmartMeter Director William Devereaux tried to infiltrate the group in 2010 by offering to join its discussion group online using the pseudonym “Ralph,” his real name was listed on the email next to his fake one.

He wrote, “I live in Oakland where Smart meters have been sweeping across town and wanted to learn more about them and join the conversation to see what I can do to help out here. Thanks, Ralph.” 

The online moderator responded, “Aren’t you the head of the Smart Meter program at PG&E? We’d love your help!”

And just like that, the jig was up and Devereaux was headed out. He resigned in November 2010 and the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) began an investigation of PG&E that culminated in last week’s settlement (pdf) requiring the utility to pay the state $390,000.

SmartMeter critics contend that the devices—which use a wireless two-way connection between consumers and the utility to monitor energy usage—inappropriately gather personal information, inaccurately measure power usage, lead to systemic overcharging and are unsafe. 

The utility admitted no wrong-doing on its part in the settlement. It agreed to educate its employees on how to use social media properly (presumably without getting caught) and “sponsor three regulatory industry trainings.” No evidentiary hearings were conducted leading up to the PUC decision.

Three parties signed off on the deal: PG&E, the Utility Reform Network and the PUC Safety and Enforcement Division. But not everyone was happy. The EMF Safety Network, Californians for Renewable Energy, Inc., Joshua Hart and Ecological Options Network―all parties to the settlement discussion―opposed the settlement, which they wanted suspended while a lawsuit they filed in Superior Court seeking damages from PG&E proceeded.

The non-settling parties contend that PG&E should have to pay between $9.42 million and $42 million and that there should have been hearings to determine the extent of wrongdoing. They maintain that PG&E conducted ongoing surveillance of groups that opposed its SmartMeter program.

After anti-SmartMeter groups complained that an early draft of the settlement didn’t even include an apology by PG&E for Devereaux’s misbehavior, PG&E agreed to include one.

They are officially sorry and their apology is “sincere.”      

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

PG&E to Pay $390,000 for Snooping on SmartMeter Critics (by Derek Moore, Santa Rosa Press Democrat)

PG&E May Pay $390,000 Fine for “Ralph” the SmartMeter Spy (by Dana Hull, Silicon Beat)

Decision Approving Settlement as Modified by Settling Parties (pdf)

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