Are smart meters a smart move in Alberni

The debate over BC Hydro’s new wireless metering system is spirited; and some in Port Alberni say politics are overriding sense.

Port Alberni resident Jack McLeman doesn’t like smart meters and didn’t think he needed one. But when he returned home from a meeting last October he got one.

It was the irony of all ironies.

Port Alberni city councillor Jack McLeman had just returned from the Union of B.C. Municipalities meeting last September.

There, members discussed the contentious issue of the B.C. Hydro smart meter program, and voted 55 per cent in favour of a moratorium on their installation.

Energy Minister Rich Coleman played the program up with delegates, telling them that time-of-use billing will encourage off-peak energy use, reduce the need for additional energy capacity and save people money.

But Coleman also said that the government was moving the program forward. That despite protests there was no chance to opt out, and McLeman was about to find out first hand what that meant.

“I just got home from the meeting and the BC Hydro guy came and said that he was installing one on my house,” McLeman said. “I don’t like it but what are you gonna do?”

McLeman’s frustration was shared by critics at city council’s Jan. 28 meeting. But some residents have no problem with the meter changeover and even welcome it.

According to BC Hydro’s website, smart meters deliver power to homes and businesses.

They are encased in glass like the old BC Hydro meters, but have what are akin to a small computer and a cellphone attached.

The meters forensically measure the quantity and quality of power coursing through the provincial grid. They also record consumption data on an hourly basis and automatically detect power outages.

The $900 million program is being supplied by US firm Itron and installed by Corix Utilities.

There are 1.8 million meters to be replaced in B.C, 675,000 of which have already been installed.

In the Alberni Valley, there are 17,800 meters to be changed over, Hydro spokesperson Ted Olynyk said. Work will continue this spring and finish in July.

Some of the changeovers are already taking place. “Some of the old analog meters were already scheduled for replacement so we’re using that opportunity to install smart meters,” Olynyk said.

The program is being carried out all at once by Hydro, whom homeowners gave defacto permission to do so when existing meters were installed.

“The agreements with those allow our staff unfettered access to properties to change out the meters,” Olynyk said. “We already change an average of 40,000 meters a year.”

The agreements also apply to those meters located on federal land, he added.

Olynyk addressed Port Alberni city councillors about the smart meter program and in particular about the concerns people have with it. Those concerns included health and safety, privacy and increasing Hydro rates.

Regarding health concerns, smart meters “have one one-hundredth the strength of a cell phone,” Olynyk said. Four minutes of exposure to a wireless network (Wi-Fi)— already commonly used—equals one-year’s worth of exposure to a smart meter, he added.

In a letter to Port Alberni city council, resident Chris Alemany supported the smart meter program.

Alemany didn’t, however, support Hydro’s public education process regarding the program, nor the B.C. Liberals’ implementation of it.

“The problems with it (program) are political, not practical,” he said.

The health concerns about the meters are “exaggerated to the point of hysteria,” Alemany’s letter noted. Analysis by independent groups has shown that radio frequency radiation from the devices is consistent with Wi-Fi, microwaves, cordless phones and refrigerators, he said.

Security concerns are also overblown, said Alemany, who works in the computer industry. The AES encryption system employed by smart meters is similar to that used in Wi-Fi and is difficult to crack.

“It is easier to break in and find the Post-it note with a password on it than it is to break the encryption,” Alemany said.

Coun. McLeman says he has a bone to pick with Hydro over smart meters and Hydro rates.

McLeman says he noticed an increase in his most recent Hydro bill, which showed a 20 per cent increase in power use.

The increase was despite the fact that McLeman said he used LED Christmas lights, used them less, and didn’t use a heater for his mobile home. “The only difference was that meter,” McLeman said.

Valley resident Rosemarie Buchanan doesn’t take issue with smart meter technology so much as she does those who control it and exclude the public.

Buchanan was doing yard work in November when she noticed that a smart meter was installed on her home.

“It’s very arbitrary and people aren’t being given any choice about this — ambush is a good word,” Buchanan said. “Just because the device is theirs shouldn’t give them a carte blanche to come on your property and change them.”

When you fill out government forms, they often have sections dealing with protection of privacy.

“But we didn’t get that with this,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan’s biggest concern is with Hydro’s plan to charge more for peak time power consumption, which it has defined as between 4-8 p.m. That’s when families are cooking, doing laundry, homework on the computer, Buchanan said.

“It’s punitive to working families, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet,” Buchanan said. “People can do those things at another time but they’re still consuming the same amount of power.”

In January, the Citizens for Safe Technology group launched a province-wide petition opposing smart meters.

It is also seeking an injunction from the B.C. Utilities Commission to halt the program.

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