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“Smart” meters for FortisBC gas utility

Tom Hackney, BCSEA Policy Advisor
Monday, September 27, 2021

 

FortisBC Energy Inc.’s Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) application seeks permission from the BC Utilities Commission to replace Fortis’s one million plus conventional meters with “smart” ones.

Fortis claims a range of benefits for AMI, including improved customer access to their consumption data and increased gas system safety. But the key argument is that the North American metering industry is moving toward automated electronic technology, so that it will become increasingly difficult and costly to maintain Fortis’s current fleet of mechanical meters.

Mechanical meters measure gas flow using a diaphragm, where the advanced meters measure gas flow electronically with ultrasound. The new meters would be more expensive, but they would save a large amount of money by almost eliminating manual meter reading. The 1.1 million existing meters are read each month by a team of 150 meter readers who drive to sites all across BC and then walk up and physically read each meter.

AMI’s built-in radio transmits hourly consumption data to Fortis’s offices. Remote meter reading would save five million km per year of driving and some 1,100 metric tonnes per year of carbon dioxide emissions, making a modest contribution to BC’s GHG emissions reduction targets.

With the AMI system installed, FEI customers would be able to see hourly gas consumption data on their online portal. Customers could monitor their energy usage more closely, and could become more efficient in their use of energy. Fortis says this timely and detailed data could lead to improvements in the demand side management programs it offers its customers.

Fortis also says AMI would significantly enhance its ability to detect and respond to leaks on the gas grid. AMI’s hourly data transmissions would make it easier to detect large leaks such as pipeline breaks, as well as theft and household appliance leaks. AMI also allows the utility to remotely turn on or shut off each customer’s meter, which would be much cheaper and faster than sending out a technician. In the event of a disruption in the supply of gas, such as occurred with the 2018 rupture of the Enbridge T-South gas pipeline, Fortis could remotely shut off selected customers’ gas meters if necessary to avoid damage to the gas distribution system.

AMI would also improve Fortis’s ability to monitor its pipeline system for stress-corrosion cracking, thus reducing the risk of catastrophic failures.

Despite cost savings from reduced manual meter reading, AMI’s high capital cost means that customers’ rates would rise slightly in the short term. Whether the increase is justified will be a key consideration for the Utilities Commission.

Of great importance to some Fortis customers will be the radio wave transmissions from the meters. In 2012, FortisBC’s electric utility applied to switch to AMI, and the review of that application was dominated by claims that AMI causes negative health effects. Radio-wave exposure from AMI meters is well below the Health Canada safety standard. But some people find this unconvincing in regard to devices that will be attached to their homes.

BCSEA’s main interest in the BCUC proceeding is in the possible benefits to energy conservation. We are also doing due diligence on the costs, rate impacts and other factors, and a reasonable accommodation of people who may choose to have their new meters set in radio-off mode.

People who may choose to have their new meters set in radio-off mode.