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So, what's all the fuss about 'smart' meters?

Do you wonder why 'smart' electricity meters are called 'smart'? Do you wonder what is going on with smart meters in BC?

Smart (or advanced) meters are the latest in exciting high-tech electronics. In the last three or four years, utilities across North America have suddenly started installing millions of them.


In 2011, BC Hydro began installing the meters for all its customers. In July 2012, FortisBC's electricity utility in south central BC asked the Utilities Commission for permission to do the same in its service territory.


Supporters say smart meters will greatly improve the efficiency and capabilities of the electricity grid, while saving money and enhancing consumer service. Detractors complain of the high cost (up to $500 per meter), the uncertain benefits, and the alleged radiation hazards to people, animals and even plants.

Here's BCSEA's view of the pros and cons of smart meters:


Theft reduction:

Smart meters will deter electricity theft, mainly by illegal marijuana grow-ops, through better detection of unmetered electricity losses.

Reduced site calls:

Remote meter reading over radio frequencies will greatly reduce manual meter reading by people driving vehicles. This will reduce costs, vehicle miles and modestly reduce air emissions. The remote connection and disconnection of electricity service will also reduce site visits by service people.

System optimization:

Utilities should be able to save energy by matching more closely the amount of power they put into the grid with customersí needs.

Improved information on energy use to customers:

If customers choose, smart meters will be able to offer almost real-time information on customers' energy use through in-home devices: software that can speak to the smart meters and potentially even control appliances such as fridges and washing machines.

Time-of-use rates:

Utilities will be able to offer time-of-use rates to customers to encourage energy conservation and shift demand away from peak times, when electricity costs the most.

Electric vehicle service enhancement:

Smart meters could potentially enhance charging services for electric vehicles by allowing secure, individualized electronic billing at charging stations.

Reduced electricity bills:

Cost reductions enabled by smart meters should put downward pressure on customersí electricity bills.


High up-front costs and ratepayer risk:

The up-front installation cost for 1.8 million meters in BC Hydro's service area is $930 million, or $500 per customer. FortisBC wants to install 130,000 meters with an up-front cost of $51 million, or $400 per customer. If the cost is not balanced by the savings, the smart meter capital costs could add 2 to 3 percent to electricity bills.

Fortis estimates it will save $105 million over twenty years though theft reduction, about half of the total estimated cost benefit from its advanced meters. BC Hydro also expects theft reduction to account for just under half of its total cost savings. But these estimated savings rely on un-proven assumptions about the number of grow-ops and how they will respond to anti-theft measures. There is no established track record from other places to confirm the estimated savings.

Claimed radiation hazard:

Some customers worry about harm to their health from the radiation from smart meters. The meters emit at the frequency of radio waves when they communicate with the utility's head office, or (if enabled by the customer) when they communicate with in-home devices that display a customer's electricity use.

BCSEA is actively reviewing the evidence on smart meters in the Utilities Commissionís review of Fortisís advanced metering application. We support a full and thorough review, including of any health hazard to humans or others. Our minds are open in the issue, but so far we have seen nothing to concern us.

Do you wonder why Fortis needs Utilities Commission approval for advanced meters, but BC Hydro does not?

Normally a utility must apply to the Utilities Commission to make a large capital expenditure. The Commission then orders a proceeding at which ratepayers and the groups that represent them may scrutinize the proposal and raise any concerns.

But the government short-circuited this process in 2010 through the Clean Energy Act, which ordered BC Hydro to implement smart meters and barred the Utilities Commission from reviewing the plan.

Quite likely BC Hydro's status as a government-owned corporation encouraged the government to accord Hydro this special treatment. FortisBC, as a private corporation, received no order to implement smart meters, and so its current application is subject to review by the Utilities Commission.

BCSEA supports an empowered Utilities Commission and opposes special exemptions to let BC Hydro or any public utility make major expenditures without public scrutiny. 

BCSEA is intervening in the review of Fortis's advanced metering application to ensure that the meters are cost effective, and to ensure that Fortis pursues to the maximum any opportunities to conserve energy. We want to be sure that the meters are thoroughly assessed, so that the public can be assured that their concerns on all points will be considered when the Commission makes its final decision.

Keep posted through the BCSEA website for news on Fortis's advanced metering application, as it proceeds through the spring of 2013.

The BCUC page for the Fortis application is here.