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Smart meters to be installed this summer

BC Hydro hasn't set dates but installations must be finished by end of 2012

Don't be alarmed this summer if you see a trades worker walking up to your house and tampering with your electrical meter.

It's not a burglar - it's a BC Hydro employee tiptoeing around you to attach a "smart meter" to your house.

The device, which will start to be installed on all British Columbia homes this summer, is the Crown corporation's new method for taking stock of electricity use throughout the province. It aims to provide real-time information about your electricity use.

Situated in a Burnaby industrial park the laboratory, which Pique visited recently, looks like a control centre.

It's a single room with meters mounted on the walls and others scattered across tables and desks. A computer monitor mounted on a wall opposite shows precisely how much electricity a particular meter is measuring at a given time.

The initiative, known more formally as the Smart Metering and Infrastructure (SMI) program, requires a major capital investment of $930 million in order to purchase the meters themselves and develop a "smart grid" network to relay their information back to BC Hydro.

The look of the smart meter is an upgrade in itself. Customers currently measure their electricity use on a series of dials that help measure how many kilowatt hours (kWh) you've used in a given period. The dials read right to left, giving you a four- or five-digit number.

You take the five-digit number in one month and subtract it from the last, and the difference between the two is the amount of electricity you've consumed in your home or your business.

In the world of electrical meters, the current model is analog and the "smart meter" is digital.

Dave DeYagher, smart meter solutions architect for BC Hydro, said a "smart grid" network for meter information would be blanketed over the province in order to transmit data from those meters and back to the mothership.

"It's a network of networks with meters associated with smart meters," he said. "This meter, it talks to a local cell router, it's a little collection point in the neighbourhood that can sit on the top of an electrical pole. So that meter sends a signal through a router, sitting on a BC Hydro pole and sends it back to BC Hydro."

In addition to real-time information about power usage, the meters also allow direct contact with BC Hydro in the event of an outage.

The way it works right now, if your power goes out you have to call BC Hydro and let them know you can't turn on your TV. You have to hope they'll show up to fix the outage in time for you to catch the end of your favourite TV show.

The smart meter does all the work for you. With its last gasp before it shorts out, it sends a signal to BC Hydro that triggers a small red dot on a map, showing the Crown corporation precisely where the outage has happened.

Gary Murphy, chief project officer, said the smart meter could be particularly useful for outlying communities such as Bamfield, Tofino and Ucluelet on Vancouver Island.

"You can imagine how important that is in remote areas of the province, when we're driving away, and some customer is still without power, and then having to send it back," he said. "It's frustrating for the customer, expensive for us and no one wins."

The smart meter can also help combat electricity theft. The current meters have had several instances of grow-op managers re-routing electrical wiring to make it look like the ratepayer at the adjacent house is using a higher-than-normal level of electricity than they otherwise might at unusual times.

The smart meter can help identify electricity diversions more quickly and direct the power authority to the point of theft.

Criticisms of the program are numerous and varied. Jim Quail, executive director of the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre, argues that the program is a waste of a billion dollars and, drawing on examples from the United States, argues that the information flowing through to the meters is easy to hack.

Hoping to prevent this, BC Hydro uses data encryption and stacks seven to ten layers of security on top of the information that flows through the smart grid. Fiona Taylor, acting director of the SMI program, said BC Hydro is actually going to hire hackers to try and penetrate their network to test their own security.

"Ethical hacking," she called it. "We will actually test our own solution set with a professional security firm to see if they can break into it before we put anything live."

Another criticism concerns time-of-use billing - specifically, the concern that smart meters could set the stage for such an initiative in British Columbia.

Time-of-use billing charges different rates for using electricity at specific times in the day. In Ontario, for example, it costs $0.089 per kilowatt-hour to use electricity in the summer between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. - not exactly a peak time for electricity use.

Between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., however, it jumps to $0.107 per kilowatt-hour, making it more expensive to use electricity in the afternoon than in the morning.

At one point in the tour, Taylor talked about how she uses a "smart washer and dryer" at home that can be programmed to turn on and off at different times of the day.

However, to a ratepayer in British Columbia, it would make little sense to program appliances in such a manner with any concern for rates because residents in this province pay the same amount of money no matter what time of day it is.

Asked whether BC Hydro is looking to implement time-of-use billing, everyone on the tour denied such a program was imminent. And if it were, BC Hydro could not implement it unilaterally.

"Any rate that gets implemented in BC has to have full customer consultation and get approved by the B.C. Utilities Commission," Taylor said. "We don't have a time of use rate on the table right now. In our business case, we do have a volunteer-based time of use rate, over the next, we anticipated in the next 20 years, but there is no mandate. We don't see a need for it yet and there's no mandate to implement it."

Dates for smart meter installations haven't been set yet, but a BC Hydro spokesperson said they're scheduled to start this summer. The Clean Energy Act permits BC Hydro workers to enter private properties and install them without the owner's permission.