ROUSING THE RABBLE: Is it a smart idea to go with smart meters?

In mid-April, BC Hydro announced a $270-million smart meter contract with a Wash. State-based Itron Inc to supply meters for two million homes in B.C. during the summer, 2011.

In mid-April, BC Hydro announced a $270-million smart meter contract with a Wash. State-based Itron Inc to supply meters for two million homes in B.C. during the summer, 2011.

The installation of the meters has the full support of Energy Minister Rich Coleman, who recently announced an in-depth review of Hydro’s capital spending and operation costs because Hydro had announced a three-year, 30 per cent increase in electricity rates. The review is now underway.

BC Hydro argues that the business benefits of smart meters are strong and will result in an immediate decrease in power rates. Critics say otherwise.

The cost overruns on the smart meter mega project could be huge. There are a plethora of examples from the past.

In the 1980s, the overrun for the construction of the Coquihalla Hwy was $500 million. In the 1990s, the Fast Cat ferries cost the province more than $400 million in extra funds. In 2009 the Vancouver Convention Centre ran some $346 million over estimated costs.

Will there be a cost overrun for smart meters?

The government’s goal with the installation of the meters is to cut consumer consumption but that cannot be guaranteed.

One well-known objective for the installation is the belief that they will solve the problem with grow-ops and other major power users, particularly those that steal electricity.

There have been legitimate concerns about smart meters expressed by power users across the province and because of the questions being asked, Elizabeth Denham, the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) for the province, is conducting an investigation to ensure that the program complies with the province’s privacy laws.

A news release from the IPC quotes Denham as saying, “The privacy and security of energy consumption data is a very real issue for citizens throughout the province.

With an increase in the frequency of the information collected from smart meters comes an increased responsibility on BC Hydro to ensure that privacy and security is built into the smart grid.”

The questions being asked centre around how the data that is collected will be used and they are legitimate.

What kinds of files will be kept? Can we trust BC Hydro to respect the privacy of users?

Will the data collected breach personal privacy?

The commissioner will investigate whether BC Hydro’s use of smart meters complies with its obligations regarding collection, use, disclosure, retention and security of personal information under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

BC Hydro has committed to co-operate fully with the commissioner’s investigation and recently started installing and the goal is to have more than 1.8 million in place by December 2012.

Rather than measuring energy use for each billing period, smart meters will provide more frequent information about people’s electricity use.

Kevin Doran, a senior research professor at the University of Colorado, says that smart meters raise privacy concerns around their potential to reveal personal details about customers’ at-home behaviour. He says the idea of communicating information about electricity use to customers but smart meters are different from the stupid meters now in use.

A smart meter can tell the utility, or other interested parties, when lights or appliances are turned on and when a new, big energy appliance is installed.

Will smart meters be installed eventually in Grand Forks? The city’s utility does not fall under BC Hydro’s jurisdiction.

Mayor Taylor is quoted in the July 27 issue of The Gazette as saying that the city is looking at them but has questions. He didn’t mention privacy and security but expressed concern about carcinogenic waste in the air. Let’s hope that the privacy commissioner can give us answers that alleviate our concerns.

– Roy Ronaghan is a columnist for the Grand Forks Gazette