Here's the challenge, BC Hydro

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, April 2013

Tell us how society—not business and government—will benefit from smart meters.

One of these days, I suppose, the BC Hydro folks will send someone to our door to inquire why we’ve been so contrary with respect to the “smart meter.” They might be surprised to see that we don’t wear the metaphorical tinfoil hats that some critics, both local and away, have used to berate anyone who’s been hesitant about Hydro’s behemoth meter replacement project.

The messy history of this saga began—at least for the public—in 2010 and has already been covered by Focus. (See Rob Wipond’s articles online in the September and November, 2011 issues.) But a few milestones are worth reiterating. The beginning, for example, when the BC government fast-tracked a Clean Air Act that set the stage for replacing all 1.8 million analogue power meters in the province with smart meters. Estimated cost: A billion dollars. You’d think that would call for some independent analysis and public consultation, but no, these were waved aside because, for reasons not clear, the project needed to be done by December 2012. (It’s obviously behind schedule.)

What we do know is that the analogue meters were working fine until the day a serious gnashing of teeth at both the legislature and BC Hydro relegated them to the scrap heap. The contract to replace them was swiftly handed to a company named Corix, which is half-owned by CAI Capital Management. The threads that connect this triumvirate of government, BC Hydro and CAI weave an intricate cat’s cradle of sorts, most notably through a woman named Tracey McVicar who heads up western Canada operations at CAI and sits on BC Hydro’s board of directors. David Emerson, the prominent federal Liberal-turned-Conservative politician, is also a CAI executive who happens to know the entry code to inner circles at both the government and BC Hydro.

But let’s assume these beginnings were ethical, and let’s also not belabour the possibly genuine health concerns surrounding smart meters. (Truth is, smart meter or not, we’ve already created a stew of electromagnetic sludge and we’re living in the bottom of the pot.)

My biggest stumbling block is the project’s lack of legitimate raison d’être. That the old meters are old, that stolen electricity will be recouped, and that power outages can now be reported in nanoseconds (i.e. “improved customer service”) don’t add up to viable reasons for a billion-dollar retrofit. BC Hydro glibly pitches the rhetoric—“the $930 million investment in the Smart Metering Program will deliver $1.6 billion in savings to our customers over the next 20 years”—but offers no numbers to back that up. It doesn’t dare mention time-of-day pricing, which is the specific money-and-electricity-saving application that smart meters have been designed for.

Yes, the rates will go up. Rates do: that’s part of life. Hydro rates increased last year and will again in 2013. But time-of-day pricing would give us more control over our bill than the current stepped-rate formula does, and it would also be fairer. Of course we won’t be up in the night, washing and cooking, but our machines could be. Already there are devices to help shift our usage away from peak periods. Dishwashers have had delayed-start options for years, and many washing machines now have them too. Thermal storage systems can heat up during the night and store the heat until we need it in the morning, like a Thermos bottle. (Nova Scotia Power has long been promoting them.) Hot water heaters will inevitably do the same.

This load transfer to off-peak hours would even-out our usage and, along with increased conservation and expanded alternate energy sources that have been touted as priorities by BC Hydro, would definitely ease our draw on the grid, perhaps even enough to put the Site C Dam project on hold. (It’s scheduled to flood a devastating 5550 hectares of pristine land.) Avoiding that would be worth a billion dollars.

So, BC Hydro, talk if you want me to buy into your smart meter project. Tell me how society—not business and government—will benefit from this massive overhaul. Show me a business plan that’s good for us and the environment. Tell me about the permanent jobs you’ll create and how you’ll offset the hardship for the 400 meter readers already declared redundant. Tell me how the mountain of valuable resources in the old meters is being reclaimed. Share your serious plan for alternate energy development, and your programs for helping us reduce our use, including when you plan to introduce time-of-day pricing. Tell me about privacy protection, a serious and rightful concern.

And don’t make so much of that power outage feature. I’m still quite capable of using the phone.

Trudy Duivenvoorden recently had her attic insulated to a cozy R50 and dreams of the day when truly green energy will be the norm.