In defence of the Smart Meter

The recent hubbub being stirred up by those who have set their own hair on fire over the introduction of smart meters is refreshing in one respect: it’s a nice change from reports of suspicious chem-trails and inside jobs on 9/11.

British Columbians are probably right to be apprehensive about BC Hydro’s motivations and future intent, particularly as the utility is controlled by a provincial government that already seems determined to govern more from an ideological imperative (or to satisfy the demands of crony capitalists) than from interest in the common good. When decisions are being made behind closed doors by cabinet – or politically appointed bureaucrats – with little or no independent oversight, we should not be surprised by hoi polloi expectations of conspiracy (see BC Rail, HST, et al). However, as far as I can see most of the anti-smart meter bleating is just annoying and politically counterproductive.

What are Smart Meters?

If you’re not aware, BC Hydro, the publicly owned utility that provides electricity to British Columbian homes and businesses (and exports electricity to the United States), has launched a project to replace all of the old analogue meters currently in use with new digital meters equipped with wireless signalling technology. This has inspired a minor movement in opposition, with people threatening to blockade their analogue meters in order to prevent replacement.

They’re called smart meters because – unlike the old analogue meters, which only recorded the total electricity usage and had to be read manually every month or two – the new meters can record usage on an hourly basis, detect power failures and irregular voltage levels, and contain two radio transmitters. One of these radios transmits data hourly to a receiver located in the same neighbourhood (which then relays the data to BC Hydro’s mainframe). The other radio, disabled unless the customer requests activation, allows that customer to use in-home or in-business technology to manage his or her own electrical conservation.

I expect that the new meters are also capable of recording bi-directional power transfers. I’m sure there’s a more technically accurate phrase to describe that, but basically it means that if you are generating your own electricity on your property, you’ll be able to “upload” it to the grid and be paid for it. BC Hydro doesn’t make this very clear in their promotional propaganda, beyond one sentence that reads “The measurement technology determines how much power is being consumed and produced.” I’m too lazy to read the technical specs to find out for sure, but that “produced” sounds promising.

If you think that the likelihood of your generating any power, let alone surplus power, is science fiction, just think of a product that is getting a lot of hype (and taxpayer subsidies) lately: the electric car. Personally, I have a lot of concerns with the electric car (at least from an metro-urban planning perspective – see pending separate rant on this topic), but if you want to know why you might soon be in a position to sell electricity, check out another smart concept, the smart grid, in this Wikipedia article.

Speaking of smart grid, the smart meter program isn’t just about individual meters. All of those individual meters collectively provide additional functionality as well, within neighbourhoods, within regions, and across the province. For instance, if one of your neighbours is by-passing the meter in order to steal electricity to secretly provide lighting to his basement hydroponic herb garden (a problem that can increase the likelihood of electrocution, fire, power failures, and electrical interference), the aggregated meters will record a discrepancy between the amount of power used on one block compared to the amount of power recorded by meters, making it easier to track down the leak. It’s only fair, after all, that everyone pays for what they use, regardless of the nature of that use.

Of course, it should be pointed out that this wouldn’t be as significant an issue if governments hadn’t put BC Hydro in the absurd position of being forced to fink to the police on anyone with higher-than-average power usage, effectively using a public utility as a law enforcement investigation unit. That few would bother to steal the electricity in the first place if they were just left to grow their herbs in peace is a detail that merits no official recognition.

There are undoubtedly larger-network benefits to the smart grid as well. For instance, the ability to manage the overall power network based on demand and supply is desirable. Power might be shifted across different transmission systems based on higher or lower demand in one region, or in order to react to supply problems in the form of generation outages (ie: dam maintenance or transmission line damage). An intelligent grid can potentially better manage electricity and promote better conservation, with less waste. Besides potentially relieving upward pressure on domestic electricity prices, it’s possible that better resource management might also reduce the need to generate extra electricity through the burning of coal and other polluting resources at times when systems near, or exceed, capacity.

The Opposition

There are certainly questions to be asked about any new technology being introduced, particularly when one has no choice over whether one uses the technology. “Is it safe?” and “Will my privacy be protected?” are two that immediately spring to mind.

Unfortunately, rather than have constructive conversations about these subjects, we seem to have a bunch of people with varying political agendas who would rather scream “It’s going to give me brain cancer!” and “They want to track how often I recharge my vibrator!” Most of these people are quite rational about most other things, and have legitimate political concerns about many topics, yet resort to irrational histrionics about smart meters.

Not only does this behaviour call into question their general credibility about other topics, but more importantly it occupies the space that should be used for more constructive conversations about resource management, public ownership and privatisation, environmental stewardship, open government, and equitable and fair cost recovery.

Considering its history, it is highly likely that the provincial government, in collusion with vested interests and foreign powers, is incrementally working toward the privatisation of British Columbia’s electrical grid. In all likelihood, the universal use of smart meters will make BC Hydro and/or its component parts more attractive to private investors. This presumed fact does not mean that the adoption of smart meters is the wrong decision any more than offering free wifi on BC Ferries will make it easier to privatise the ships. A strong case for smart meters can be made even if continued public ownership were certain.

British Columbians who are genuinely interested in continuing to have a publicly owned electrical utility would do well to aggressively promote that idea. Instead, people seem content to fritter away their increasingly limited political capital on absurd-sounding claims, like how smart meters “will effectively blanket homes and neighbourhoods with radiation, “[…]what you are doing at any moment can be intercepted by market researchers, insurance investigators, saboteurs, would-be burglars[…]“, or one American site that says “Smart Meters is a grid designed to control and incarcerate the public”.

It’s not just anonymous cranks and semi-literate Facebookers, though. Opposition to smart meters seems to be the thing to do for some NDP activists. Take Bill Tieleman, for instance. His Tyee article on the subject last summer resorted to a lot of the same sort of panicmongering. He quotes a New York doctor who speaks of “exposure to radiofrequency radiation at elevated levels for long periods of time”. It seems that the doctor is either speaking out of context, or doesn’t understand how smart meters work, and Tieleman only impairs his own credibility by quoting him.

One thing Tieleman does mention, which is quite important to any discussion about ethics in government and about the implementation of the smart meter program, is the allegation by journalist Will McMartin about possible Liberal-party graft in the awarding of the smart meter contract. This is certainly an issue of concern, and both McMartin and Tieleman are right to raise it. However, it is only an issue of implementation, not about the value of the program itself. If city council awards the garbage collection contract to one of the mayor’s political cronies, it does not therefore mean that garbage collection should be abandoned.

At least the NDP’s energy critic, John Horgan, seems to be staying away from the loonier claims of the anti-smart meter folk, which is probably tricky since many of them are probably people who vote NDP. At a public meeting in Kelowna, he avoided appearing to agree with those making hysterical health claims but tried to sound sympathetic by saying “But I do know, with absolute certainty, that the anxiety that these smart meters are creating are leading to health issues for people.”

In other words, if I may creatively paraphrase Horgan, “you people are making yourselves sick worrying about something that emits a mere fraction of the radio frequency power of that iPhone in your pocket, and you’ll never have to hold it up to your head. Get over it and let’s talk about something important.”. Horgan can’t say so, but no doubt he thinks that that the crazy lefties who rail against smart meters for health reasons are as loony as the crazy rightists who rail against fluoridated drinking water and polio vaccination.

The NDP is well advised not to jump on the bandwagon of the irrationally discontent, unless they want to further drive away the environmentalist voters that they alienated in the last election by opportunistically opposing the carbon tax, a decision that cost them more votes than they gained.

It is difficult to comprehend how people can get worked up about a meter that sends out a two second signal once an hour, compared to all of the other much more intensive signals surrounding them. At this moment, there are, within detectable range of the chair in my living room, no fewer than twenty-eight detectable wireless modems all beaming signals, many probably doing so continuously, 24 hours a day. And then there are the cellular signals. Here’s a cell tower map of greater Vancouver:

Add to that the satellites beaming cable television throughout the city, the commercial radio signals, the two-way radios, the ham radios, the microwave transmitters on the mountains… even if you add up all the smart meters on your street, their output is minuscule by comparison.

Effectiveness of implementation

I’ve already mentioned the increased opportunity for privatisation. I’m not going to launch into a discussion of the merits, or lack thereof, of a privatised utility, other than to say that I doubt that most British Columbians are enthusiastic about the prospect. Privatisation is not an issue with meters per se, and some might call it a slippery-slope sort of suggestion, but if the subject is relevant, it relates to implementation. I’m uneasy about appearing to engage in conspiracy-mongering myself, but with this government almost anything sounds plausible, especially after the BC Rail fiasco.

With that in mind, it occurs to me that having the population in an uproar that appears to be caused by BC Hydro (even though BC Hydro is effectively forced to do whatever the provincial cabinet decides) serves very conveniently to cause deterioration of the traditionally good relationship between BC Hydro and its customers. Is the smart meter controversy eroding the pride that British Columbians feel about their utility? Even among those who don’t care much about the meter question, just being peripherally aware of controversy may be erosive. In business terms, it’s damaging the brand, and a damaged brand will be easier to dispose of, politically.

BC Hydro has provided on their FAQ, in my opinion, sufficient information about the health and privacy concerns that customers might have about how the meters will be operated at the time of implementation. Rather than report total electrical usage once a month, the meters will report total electrical usage once an hour. No one reasonable is going to have a problem with that.

One thing BC Hydro probably did wrong was to call them “smart meters.” The word smart evokes the concept of intelligence – artificial intelligence, in this regard. Who wants one of Ridley Scott’s replicants hanging on the wall outside her bedroom window? “Smart” vaguely suggests “sinister”, or “spying”, at least when applied to a cold machine of efficient calculation that doesn’t play games or have a “like” button. It’s no wonder there’s resistance. They should have stuck a fruit decal on it and called it an “iMeter.” Then, instead of launching anti-meter websites, the citizenry would be lined up outside of BC Hydro’s Dunsmuir Street headquarters, holding up fists full of cash and clamouring to be the first on their blocks to take home the new iMeter.

Though I found many of the answers on BC Hydro’s FAQ candid and informative, I also felt that a couple of the answers were potentially less than honest. Oddly, though, I kind of hope that they are lying. The first questionable question is “Will my rates go up because of smart meters?”, to which they provide an unqualified “no” as an answer.

The second question is “Will BC Hydro be introducing time-of-use rates?”. The answer here is also negative, ostensibly because time-of-use rating is generally only used in markets where the risk of exceeding capacity is high and time-of-use helps prevent it.

The paranoid in me thinks that they mean what they say, that “they” will not raise rates, but who can say what the government will force them to do, or what a future private owner might do? But the fact is, rates are almost certain to rise, eventually. It’ll just be for some other reason, of course.

But really, I’m nor terribly concerned. I think that they should raise rates.

As citizens of British Columbia, and therefore as investors in the utility, I think every residential household should be entitled to a base amount of electricity, regardless of the size of dwelling or the number of occupants, for free. Yes, that’s right – for free. But just a base amount. I’m talking about just enough to power a minimal number of energy-efficient lights and appliances necessary for basic survival and comfort. Any electrical usage above that basic amount would be charged for, at graduated rates based on a usage scale, so that the more you use, the more you pay.

(BC Hydro should stick to its commitment to avoid a time-of-use scheme as much as possible, unless capacity issues make it necessary. However, I would not favour time-of-use if capacity issues arise as a result of selling excessive quantities of power to jurisdictions outside of British Columbia, especially those who have no conservation incentives of their own.)

The result? Customers would have a much stronger incentive to conserve energy than currently exists, and the incentive would apply to all users, regardless of economic station, without unduly burdening (and even helping) the low income. This could mean everything from turning out a light when you leave the room to investing in energy efficient appliances and better insulation.

Now that’s something I’d like to see the anti-meter crowd redirect their energies toward.


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