Being smart on new meters

Smart electricity meters will begin their roll-out in Victoria later this month. By the end of 2012, every household in B.C. will be fitted. The benefits, according to B.C. Hydro, are significant. The digital technology communicates automatically with the corporation via radio. The time-consuming process of sending meter readers out will be largely eliminated.  And because the new machines provide readings throughout the day, customers will be able to see, in real time, how much power they’re using. That’s expected to reduce consumption by making us more energy conscious.  The conversion will cost close to $1 billion. But B.C. Hydro believes it is a win-win arrangement.

Customers will save money, because they’ll be more inclined to economize. And the utility will benefit, because reduced demand will relieve its over-stressed electrical grid. It’s also hoped the new meters may be able to detect marijuana grow-ops.  Count us skeptical, on several grounds. First, the government paved the way for this change-over by ordering the B.C. Utilities Commission to stay out of it.  If this is such a good deal for consumers, why has the public watchdog been muzzled?  Second, while energy conservation is important, it cannot offset the growing shortfall in electricity supply. Wasteful consumption is not the main problem.  Over the last quarter century, our population has expanded by almost 50 per cent. Yet not a single new power plant of large size has been built through that period. As a result, we’ve gone from an exporter of electricity, to an importer.

By failing to make timely investments, B.C. Hydro has caused the jam it now faces. Clever new metering devices will not save our bacon.  Third, although the company won’t say so, smart meters are almost certainly the first step toward a program of rate increases. That has certainly been the experience in other jurisdictions which use this technology.  Ontario, for example, employs smart meters to impose higher rates during daylight hours. Homeowners who use electricity between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. are charged 80 to 100 per cent more than the night-time rate.  This policy, called time-of-day billing, is presented as a break-even proposition. Theoretically, while customers pay more during peak hours, they can save money by changing their lifestyles. For people with flexible schedules, washing laundry at 5 a.m., or cooking dinner at 9 p.m., may be practical. But many families can’t do that. The result is a significant hike in electricity bills.

So what is the solution? Buying power from Alberta, as we have been doing, is not desirable. More than 50 per cent of that province’s electricity is generated at coalfired plants – the least environmentally clean technology.  In the long run, we need a made-in-B.C. solution. That likely means pushing ahead with the proposed Site C hydro dam near Fort St. John on the Peace River. The project is currently under review.  But what about the short term? The government has promised that time-of-day billing will only be considered after public consultations.  In politics, that usually means the deal is already done. But if consultations are to occur, here is the minimum we should insist on.  The government must present a credible energy plan. And if time-of-day billing has to be part of it, we need a commitment that the daily routines of working families will be accommodated.  Anything less is merely shifting the problem onto the backs of consumers.

via : Times Colonist

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