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A BC Hydro smart meter units. (Brett Beadle for The Globe and Mail/Brett Beadle for The Globe and Mail)
A BC Hydro smart meter units. (Brett Beadle for The Globe and Mail/Brett Beadle for The Globe and Mail)

Smart meters

No time-of-use billing for B.C., Energy Minister insists Add to ...

A BC Hydro official says its already controversial smart meters could one day be used for time-of-day pricing – a policy that has been blamed for consumer prices soaring in jurisdictions such as Ontario – but the province’s Energy Minister is emphatically rebutting the idea.

“I’ve said it clearly: We’re not going to time of use. If [BC Hydro officials]don’t have that message, they’re going to get it,” Rich Coleman said Tuesday within an hour of the idea being raised by a hydro executive during a seminar at the annual convention of the Union of B.C. Municipalities.

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Mr. Coleman was responding to suggestions by BC Hydro project manager Gary Murphy that energy pricing based on the time of day had been popular in a pilot project and could evolve into policy if communities push for it.

Mr. Murphy, in an interview, acknowledged government opposition, suggesting it was based on “negative fallout” from Ontario where smart meters have been blamed for soaring energy prices because consumers cannot adjust their schedules to take advantage of lower prices off-hours.

B.C. communities enthusiastic about the idea of time-of-use pricing could talk to government about trying out the practice at the local level, Mr. Murphy said.

He said BC Hydro has long-term interests in how the issue might play out: “If the choice that customers have in the future is between building more generating capacity or going to time-of-use rates, economically it’s a clear slam-dunk. It’s cheaper to conserve than to build new generators.”

Mr. Coleman, asked about the idea moments later, was indignant. “I said clearly when I became minister and I have said it every time I have been asked, I have no intention of going to time-of-use.”

He said the government won’t change its policy on installing smart meters even if UBCM delegates vote against them in a resolution set for debate later this week.

The smart meters that B.C. is installing are seen as a means of more accurately monitoring electrical usage to conserve electricity. However, they have been controversial in the province over concerns about the radiation they emit and the cost of the $930-million program.

“Smart meters are here. We’re going to do them. We’re going to do them right,” Mr. Coleman said of the program to replace current electromechanical hydro meters with digital meters that allow hourly tracking of energy usage. As of this week, BC Hydro has installed the meters in 100,000 homes. By the end of 2012, they are to be installed in 1.7 million homes.

Mr. Murphy, facing questions from delegates in the morning seminar, was equally emphatic. When a delegate asked about options for flat-out refusing them, Mr. Murphy said the best he could offer was to attach the devices on the edge of a property.

“There’s no opt-out program,” he said in the interview. “It’s the way of the world. We’re following in step with what most utilities are doing to improve the reliability and cost-effectiveness of their distribution system.”

NDP energy critic John Horgan said time-of-use pricing would not lead to lower energy bills in B.C. because most families have few options about the timing of such routines as dinner, homework and bathing their children.

“Why Rich is running away from this is that if they’re not popular now; they’re going to be less popular when people learn that their sole purpose is to increase bills for regular families,” Mr. Horgan said.

Time-of-use hydro billing as it works in Ontario:

– Electricity prices vary by the time of day, day of the week and season in order to encourage consumers to schedule their consumption at times when prices are lower. The Ontario Energy Board has designated three time-of-use periods: off-peak, mid-peak and on-peak.

– The option is being extended in Ontario to encourage consumers toward energy conservation. As Ontario faces the challenge of replacing 80 per cent of its electricity system by 2025, this encouragement is seen as a means of easing pressure on the system.

– Time-of-use prices are set each May and November based on an electricity supply cost forecasts for the year ahead.

– In Ontario, the shift has required installing the appropriate meters in residences as well as data links to the power utility. Consumers can then view their power usage online.

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