Dispatches from the urban meter wars

By Rob Wipond, November 2011

Resistance to BC Hydro’s smart meters still seems strong, but it’s hard to tell who’s winning.

A BC Hydro rep gave a presentation at a recent meeting about energy conservation initiatives. Unbidden, he began by letting us know, “One thing we’re not going to discuss today is smart meters.” 

Since I was filling in for a friend and not there “as journalist,” I won’t disclose details. Suffice to say the meeting was filled with people very supportive of energy conservation.

When the BC Hydro rep inadvertently mentioned smart meters some minutes later, he interrupted himself: “Let’s not go there.” 

When his PowerPoint slide about smart meters popped up, he jumped to the next slide. He wasn’t even going to try to make the case for them to this knowledgeable group.

As we received this in polite silence, it began to sink in for all of us, I think, just how deeply damaging the Liberal “slam smart meters down their throats” campaign has been for BC Hydro’s reputation.

***

A retired Saanich woman, not keen to have a smart meter in her home, recently called to tell me her story. After some exchanges of emails and phone calls with various BC Hydro representatives, she said, one rep “ended our phone discussion with the interesting advice that I should be looking into alternative energy sources.”

It’s not surprising, considering that BC Hydro has repeatedly stated it will not be allowing anyone to opt out of smart meters. But the harshness of that suddenly struck me starkly: A huge corporation with monopoly powers is throwing a potentially life-endangering threat at an elderly pensioner. And they have the power to deliver on that threat with a simple shutoff switch.

I soon heard from others who’d received similar threats.

And that also makes me wonder: Win or lose, is all this actually helping set the stage for the Liberals inviting more private corporations into our electricity sector?

***

A number of protesters told me they’d been assured by BC Hydro their account had been “flagged” and their home would be bypassed pending further discussions. They then found themselves stuck with a smart meter shortly thereafter—as if they’d been “flagged” by BC Hydro all right—for a quick end-run.

Others have had their requests respected, so far.

Some sent me photos of meter rooms plastered with signed refusals, or of analogue meters padlocked in place or boarded up to allow reading and emergency interventions but not removal.

Yes, the public groups who’ve been active from the outset are still fighting, but I’ve been hearing from a wider array of local citizens. Entire housing co-ops and condominium complexes are debating and organizing resistance.

“We are living directly over the electrical room where there would be 24 of the meters,” says one woman, who has so far got three-quarters of her strata council agreeing to lock out BC Hydro. 

She developed cancer from prolonged, improper work with an early dental X-ray machine, and her husband has a serious heart condition. Can you blame her, then, for interpreting the concepts of “precautionary” and “prudent approach” to EMF radiation a little more sensitively than you or I might, particularly since no one has ever suggested smart meters are in any way “necessary,” anyhow?

In her housing co-op, another woman explains to me, a newborn will be lying just a layer of plywood and drywall away from 21 of these wireless meters. 

Has that kind of situation really been thoroughly studied?

***

It’s situations like those that are taking the reputation of BC Provincial Health Officer Dr Perry Kendall down with BC Hydro’s. His letter to Focus last month, in response to my article, is a good example of why. I posted a reply on Focus’ website which is also printed this month. What’s most concerning to many, though, can be boiled down to one issue. 

Yes, there are some scientific uncertainties about the relative dangers posed by EMFs at different exposures for different people. On the flip side, though, no one’s suggesting there are any health benefits to smart meters whatsoever. So how does any medical risk-benefit analysis lead to Kendall giving de facto support for installing these devices in every household in the province?

It’s reminiscent of regional medical officer Dr Richard Stanwick’s position on pesticides. In recent years, Stanwick has resisted tougher restrictions on pesticide use on lawns and branded the Canadian Cancer Society as “extreme.” Previously, he appeared at press conferences, testified in court and tribunal hearings, and even lobbied other prominent scientific experts to change their positions as he defended the “safety” of aerial spraying of insecticide over Victoria to kill the Gypsy Moth. There’s some debate over exactly how dangerous certain pesticides are under what conditions, but in these situations, again, no one was pointing to any off-setting health benefits.

The provincial government, though—Stanwick and Kendall’s employer—sees other benefits to widely using pesticides and installing smart meters.

 

It’s irksome how often we’re still hearing the BC Hydro refrain that “20 years of exposure to a smart meter is equal to one 30-minute cell phone call.” 

You’d have to know the precise frequency and strength of meter transmission—both widely variable. You’d have to know exact distance and position in relation to the meter, and the relative permeability of various parts of the body—all widely variable. Et cetera. How hard is it to figure out that this generalization isn’t even close to reasonable? 

And notice BC Hydro doesn’t compare it to any amount of time close to a microwave oven—no one’s already blissfully addicted to pressing microwave ovens against ear and mouth.

***

The politics of all this is the most disturbing aspect. The ridiculously high costs that will only go up. The misleading health statements and conservation promises. Forced surveillance into every home. Redesigning our electricity system to support privatization. Reshaping green technology development to suit corporations. Opening our electricity system to wireless hacking attacks. (See “Getting a Read on Smart Meters” in September’s Focus.) Digital meters bother many different people for many different reasons.

BC Hydro has said they’ve received “a couple of thousand” complaints provincially, and about a hundred requests for non-installation. Yet I’ve heard of hundreds in Victoria alone trying to refuse the meters. Over half of BC municipal governments have called for a moratorium. Meanwhile, BC Hydro has apparently only installed 100,000 out of 1.8 million smart meters so far.

It’s house-by-house warfare going on in our cities. Yet most of our media aren’t covering much of it; until I started digging, it seemed like little was going on out there. 

It highlights the important role daily media can play in such protests. The anti-smart meter campaign is an interesting metaphor and example for other efforts going on in our society right now to build grassroots movements. With no one prominent helping, where do people turn to get an accurate read on our collective spirit? If no leading entity does a poll or survey, holds a fair referendum, investigates and reports persistently, or brings people together at giant demonstrations, how do we keep the pulse on how many others are feeling the same way we do? How do we know how much collective pressure we’re pushing back on authorities? How do we know how close we are to victory?

Rob Wipond is walled in concrete four floors up.