BC Hydro has reached the halfway point in swapping out Cranbrook’s old meters for the new, controversial smart meters.
Fiona Taylor, Deputy Chief Project Officer for BC Hydro’s Smart Metering Program, reports that about 10,000 of the 18,000 meters in Cranbrook have been upgraded, part of the 1.9 million meters the company is replacing province-wide.
System upgrades are underway in Cranbrook as well, meaning some homes here are already sending electricity usage data to BC Hydro’s hubs through the new digital meters.
“What makes them smart is this ability to capture and store data, and this ability to communicate,” Taylor explained at the Cranbrook and District Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Wednesday, June 20.
BC Hydro is modernizing its grid to reduce operating costs, conserve energy and catch electricity theft, Taylor explained to the gathered business people.
“It’s about identifying theft of power, which is a real problem for us. It’s also about understanding what is happening with the information of our electricity – where it is flowing and how we are using it,” she said.
By switching to smart meters, BC Hydro will save $1.6 billion. When you subtract the cost of implementing the program and operating the new system, it represents $500 million savings, she went on.
“If we did not do the smart metering program, all of us would be under rate pressure to find another $1.6 billion of costs to drag out of the system,” said Taylor.
It also means BC Hydro can control how much electricity goes out, since it will know exactly what the demand is.
“Smart meters don’t just collect consumption, they also collect voltage information, power quality information, and other health of the system factors.
“We can use all of that to manage how much electricity we need to put out there in order to meet the need and the reliability of our power.”
The meters also mean BC Hydro will know straight away if even one home loses power. Instead of the current system (still in place until 2013), where consumers need to call BC Hydro to report an outage, the smart meter will ping the hub as it loses power, and again once power returns. The ability is colloquially called “last gasp, first breath”.
When Ladner experienced an outage recently, BC Hydro knew immediately when the power went out, and when it had been restored. They were also able to see that once the bulk of homes had power restored, a small cluster were still out. Ordinarily, those ‘nested outages’ would be unknown to techs unless a customer called it in again.
“It was very redeeming for us to see that work,” said Taylor.
Perhaps the biggest benefit for BC Hydro, Taylor explained, is the ability to catch the theft of electricity, which costs $100 million a year.
“That’s one thing putting pressure on rates. As ratepayers, you should be quite offended,” said Taylor.
What’s more, electricity theft is dangerous, leading to house fires and safety issues at the pole.
“We are not expecting to find all the theft in the province, but we are expecting to get a lot of it.”
Meanwhile, the meters have benefits for customers, too, according to Taylor. Instead of BC Hydro’s current system of estimated billing, customers will pay only for exactly what they use. Plus, if they opt to participate, customers can go online and see specific data about their own electricity usage.
“One of the things you’ll be able to take advantage of is a website that shows you your hourly consumption up to yesterday. You can see what you’re using, how you’re using it, you can look at your consumption relative to the weather, relative to the same time last year, relative to other homes of the same size in your area…” listed Taylor.
As the smart meters have been implemented across B.C., Taylor said BC Hydro has heard questions from customers about several aspects of the program.
A Coalition to Stop Smart Meters has formed to oppose the new technology, fearing invasion of privacy, lack of freedom of choice, increased costs, and compromised safety.
“We have had a surge of billing questions,” Taylor admitted, but added that in most cases the billing queries have been about a reading from an old meter, not a smart meter.
The most common complaint from customers has been concerns about the radio frequency submitted by the smart meters.
But Taylor urged that the signal from a smart meter is less than one hundredth that of a cell phone. Twenty years of exposure from a smart meter is equivalent to one 30-minute cell phone call.
BC Hydro looked at the world’s strictest frequency regulation – in Switzerland for hospitals and schools – and the smart meter’s frequency is half of that regulation, according to Taylor.
These statistics are based on the frequency within 20 centimetres of the front of the meter, where it is at its highest.
BC Hydro expects to finish replacing meters in Cranbrook in November, and throughout the province by 2013.