Skip to content

BC Hydro rolls around smart meter resisters

Move towards modernized power grid continues, despite some opposition
BC Hydro's David DeYagher holds an old analogue mechanical power meter in his right hand

In BC Hydro's smart meter lab in south Burnaby, staff know they still have an uphill battle in their ongoing bid to roll out their modernized smart power grid.

It's a steeper climb in some parts of the Lower Mainland than others.

Less than 20 per cent of households have been switched over to the controversial wireless smart meters in Surrey, White Rock, the Tri-Cities and Maple Ridge.

In contrast, 80 per cent of homes have now been converted in Richmond and Delta.

The conversion rate is closer to 30 per cent in Vancouver, Burnaby and the North Shore, as well as the Mission, Abbotsford and Chilliwack areas in the Fraser Valley.

Less than one per cent of B.C.'s 1.8 million households have balked at accepting smart meters in their homes.

Hydro's strategy is to work around the several thousand resisters. Meter installers go where they're unopposed and continue their work.

Eventually, officials say, everyone will have to be on board.

"We have about 20 per cent of our system fully deployed now," says Fiona Taylor, deputy project officer for the smart metering program.

"We've had about 1,000 customers to date call with concerns and then change their views on that once we've had a chance to talk to them."

Many who object worry a new layer of wireless radiation penetrating their homes will harm their health.

"There's a significant amount of misinformation out there," Hydro communications manager Cindy Verschoor said.

"The meters are absolutely safe. They've been confirmed safe by the provincial health officer, the World Health Organization and Health Canada."

Smart meters do send brief wireless pulses out to the rest of the grid a few times a day to relay power use data.

Unlike FM radio transmitters that emit the same type of radiation continually, the smart meter transmissions add up to less than one minute of exposure per day (latest tests suggest it is a couple of seconds), at power levels several times lower than a cellphone.

Hydro estimates the radio frequency (RF) exposure from standing next to a smart meter for 20 years is equivalent to a 30-minute cellphone call.

A new statement on the exposure risk prepared and approved by the B.C. Cancer Agency at the request of provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall says there's no convincing evidence of health risk from wireless technology.

Smart meter transmission exposure rapidly diminishes with distance, it notes, reaching just one 100,000th of Health Canada's limit at a range of three meters.

"This exposure level is much less than exposure to RF from cellphone use," according to the Dec. 23 statement by Mary McBride.

She also notes brain tumour rates have not increased despite increasing cellphone use, concluding no mechanisms have been identified that would lead to a higher cancer risk from either cellphones or smart meters.

Repeated studies have failed to confirm claims some people suffer from electromagnetic sensitivity, the statement said.

Independent electromagnetic radiation tests commissioned by CBC News in December verified BC Hydro's evidence that smart meters are drowned out by FM transmitters, cellphones and myriad other signals.

Some apartment dwellers have raised concerns that they may live too close to large banks of smart meters. In practice, one meter in a bank communicates out to the grid on behalf of the others.

Tests next to the bank of 10 smart meters in BC Hydro's lab show that even if they are all set to transmit simultaneously and continuously – something that wouldn't happen – the combined radiation is no stronger than one cellphone operating.

The CBC test by engineer Rob Stirling found continuous cellphone frequency and FM signals in Vancouver both eclipsed the emissions of the lab smart meters running at full power.

"Smart meters pose no threat of illegal radio interference, or health hazards according to Canadian regulations," he concluded.

RF signals – beamed out by everything from radio stations and the sun to wireless computer routers and fluorescent light fixtures – blanket the urban landscape.

Opponents of smart meters, including the group Citizens For Safe Technology, haven't given up.

CST has launched a province-wide petition opposing the rollout and they're seeking an injunction from the BC Utilities Commission to stop it, on grounds that the wireless technology goes beyond the scope of the program's enabling legislation.

BC Hydro's David DeYagher holds an old analogue mechanical power meter in his right hand, and a new wireless smart meter in his left hand.      Jeff Nagel photo



Black Press examined the following questions related to smart meters:

There's only so much people can do to save energy. Will this really save money?

Despite the $930-million price tag to install smart meters across the province, BC Hydro estimates they will generate $1.6 billion in overall benefits and $500 million in net savings over 20 years after all costs.

Households and businesses will have the option to use devices that display their power consumption in real time. You'll be able to plug and unplug different lights, appliances or phantom electronics and see how the change affects your power consumption in real time.

Some people will use that to become more efficient and find power savings to reduce their bills.

Critics, including the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre, have disputed that the conservation gains will amount to much, at least without shifting to time-of-day pricing, where users pay more at peak times.

BC Hydro responds that customer conservation is a small part of the big picture.

"Even if the customer doesn't show up, we still get 80 per cent of the benefits," Taylor said.

The existing grid inefficiently sends electricity into the substations and on to homes through wires at less-than-optimal voltages.

Meters aren't just being added in homes and businesses at the end of the wires.

They're being added at new points throughout the grid where Hydro doesn't have good data on power flows and voltage requirements.

Real-time information will mean more efficient use of power within the grid, before it gets to the home, resulting in less waste and potentially forestalling construction of new dams.

"Much of the savings come from not having to put as much electrons on the wires as we do today," Taylor said.

Meter readers will also be eliminated, cutting payroll costs.

But BC Hydro expects the meters will also save staff time and expense in other ways.

When crews fix an outage, they will now check in with their base before leaving the area. System operators will check the smart meter grid and tell them if they've missed a couple of homes nearby. Currently, crews often make repeated visits to an area because power wasn't restored to all homes the first trip.

Line crews also get called for outages that turn out to be a blown fusebox or some other problem on the customer's side. In those cases Hydro staff will be able to check the smart meter, determine there's no problem with the power supply and advise the customer to get an electrician.

Hydro and the provincial government say they do not intend to shift to time-of-day pricing. Hydro maintains the program as structured will help reduce rates, not increase them.


Will smart meters be used to bust marijuana growers?

BC Hydro says it doesn't care how you use its electricity, provided you pay your bill.

But Hydro estimates power thieves steal at least $100 million worth of electricity each year, much of it for marijuana grow-ops.

Smart meters will instantly detect and alert the grid if they've been tampered with.

Officials say attempts to hack a home meter, bypass it, or tap into a power line on a pole can be detected because the next set of meters up the grid will be able to tell more power is being consumed than reported.

While Hydro professes not to care about pot growers who conscientiously pay their bills, those growers may come under other types of scrutiny.

The Surrey Fire Department expects to continue to get periodic access to power consumption data from BC Hydro after smart meters are installed.

Chief Len Garis said homes with high power consumption – at least three times normal levels – will continue to attract the attention of Surrey's electrical fire safety inspectors. They post warnings on those homes giving 72-hours notice of an inspection, which usually prompts pot growers to quickly vacate.

As for power thieves, Hydro says improperly spliced live wires on poles and hazardously wired grow-op homes pose a serious danger of electrocution or fire to people in the neighbourhood.


If you use an in-home power monitor, doesn't that mean there's continual transmission?

Smart meters have two transmitters. One that beams data out to the rest of the grid. The second that can transmit to in-home monitors is not turned on until the customer requests. It operates on the same 2.4-GHz frequency as a cordless phone.

Hydro says the home-area network, once activated, is mostly dormant, but the transmission frequency depends on what device it's paired with.


Can smart meters harm home electronics?

Installing a smart meter typically causes a one-minute power outage while technicians remove the old mechanical meter and pop on the smart meter.

Hydro says that's no different than a brief power interruption during an windstorm and should have no effect on appliances or electronics.


Why aren't smart meters CSA approved?

Hydro's Fiona Taylor says smart meters aren't under the jurisdiction of the Canadian Standards Association, which mainly governs retail consumer products. Instead, they're regulated by Measurement Canada for accuracy and Industry Canada for safety. BC Hydro says its smart meters also comply with other agencies' standards, including American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).


What will Hydro know about my power use within the home?

Hydro denies it will get anything other than aggregate hourly power use data from smart meters and won't be able to tell how electricity is used.

Critics worry the devices could be hacked to obtain personal data or used by thieves to determine when occupants aren't home.

Hydro maintains it is using secure encryption technology. The smart meter rollout is being overseen by B.C.'s Information and Privacy Commissioner.


What do customers actually gain?

Instant power outage detection is the big one, promising faster restoration than in the past, when Hydro often didn't know power was out until someone called.

Even with the initial 560,000 meters now activated, that benefit is already becoming apparent.

Icons already pop up each day on a screen in the smart meter lab showing instantly where power has been knocked out.

Starting in April, the first customers on smart meters should be able to log into a web portal to find out their current power consumption.

Hydro also has longer-range plans to let customers subscribe to text alerts of power interruptions. If the power goes out while you're away from home, you could be instantly alerted via cellphone (or email, Facebook or Twitter), and plan dinner accordingly, or a business manager could quickly arrange to fire up a generator.

Taylor says Hydro needs the smart grid and the responsiveness it will deliver so it can plan for future years, when electric vehicles may be widespread and 10,000 such cars could suddenly arrive downtown for a football game and plug into the grid.

It should be possible, eventually, for electric car owners to temporarily power their home from the car battery during an outage.

Smart meters also make it easier for alternative energy enthusiasts to generate their own power and sell their surplus back to the grid.


Could other utilities add smart meters as well?

There are already wireless water meters in Abbotsford, Richmond and some other B.C. cities, with more expected to come on stream.

Fortis BC is in the early stages of considering a possible switch to smart natural gas meters.

Hydro officials say other utilities could add meters in the home that connect to the electric smart meters, which would relay other utilities' data via Hydro's grid.


What if you really don't want a smart meter?

Hydro says homeowners may be able to pay out of pocket to have an electrician relocate their meter further away on their property.

No estimate of the costs was provided. Hydro says no meter relocations have happened so far.



For hardline opponents of BC Hydro smart meters, one city in the Lower Mainland offers an oasis of freedom.

New Westminster, which runs its own electric utility, is not part of the rollout of smart meters.

At least not yet.

Rod Carle, the general manager of the New Westminster Electric Utility Commission, says his city's 32,000 old mechanical power meters are aging and will ultimately have to be replaced as well.

But he said New Westminster is observing the smart meter rollout before deciding whether to join it – and potentially take advantage of cheaper bulk pricing through Hydro – or buy modern meters of a different type.

"At some point we will have to do something," Carle said.

If New Westminster doesn't adopt smart meters connected to the rest of the power grid, it would have two alternatives.

One option is to use updated digital meters without any wireless transmission capability, meaning New Westminster would continue to employ meter readers.

The other is to install digital meters that wirelessly transmit a signal that can be detected when utility trucks drive by. That type of meter – now being used by the city-run power utility in Nelson – actually transmits continuously, so RF exposure is much greater than the BC Hydro smart meters and it still requires meter readers to at least drive in trucks.

(Opponents often confuse data about the continually transmitting wireless meters used by some other power utilities with Hydro's smart meters, which transmit only occasionally and sleep the rest of the time).