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B.C.'s municipal politicians debate wisdom of smart meters

A BC Hydro smart meter. The smart meters wirelessly transmit data back to BC Hydro.

Brett Beadle for The Globe and Mail/brett beadle The Globe and Mail

Delegates at this week's annual convention of the Union of B.C. Municipalities can expect to be exposed to more than 4,500 minutes' worth of electromagnetic radiation from wireless networks as they schmooze and debate their way through four days of meetings in Vancouver.

Those same mayors and councillors will debate a resolution that demands a moratorium on the mandatory installation of smart meters in B.C. homes over concerns that electromagnetic radiation emitted by wireless smart meters poses a health threat.

BC Hydro will launch a counter-offensive on Tuesday morning in an attempt to deflate opposition before the resolution goes to a vote on Thursday.

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BC Hydro calculated the delegates' wireless exposure as part of the information package that it will distribute at the UBCM convention.

For good measure, Hydro also points out that the city of Victoria plans to provide free wi-fi service downtown using wireless-mesh technology no different than smart-meter networks. The plan was announced just days after Victoria city council voted to call for a moratorium on smart meters within city limits, and an opt-out option for residents.

Civic leaders from Colwood, Nanaimo and Invermere have also joined the movement, reflecting residents' concerns, despite assurances from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and the provincial health officer that the radio frequency fields emitted from smart-meter technology falls well within safety standards.

By Tuesday, BC Hydro estimates that 100,000 homes in British Columbia will have the new meters, with 1.7-million more to be installed by the end of 2012.

Greg Reimer, BC Hydro's executive vice-president for transmission and distribution, said he's been meeting with mayors across the province seeking to counter what he calls misinformation about smart meters.

"If I was to stand by my smart meter all day and all night for 20 years, I would be exposed to the same radio frequency as a single, 30-minute cell phone call."

But he also said the meters are not really mandatory, at least for now. "A couple thousand" BC Hydro customers have said they don't want a smart meter installed in their homes. "If they don't want one, we don't force them," he said. He added that policy could change once most of the installations are completed.

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Victoria Councillor Marianne Alto said the call for a moratorium is a compromise because many residents are worried, even though the demand for free wi-fi downtown is widely supported.

"None of us around the table has the technological expertise to assess this," she said. Asking for a moratorium, in effect, would give people more time to investigate the issue. "What irks people is that it just happened and nobody did any education in advance to reassure people, to help them make an informed decision."

Invermere Mayor Gerry Taft said his council simply wants more health information based on concerns raised by citizens, but he's not sure he'll vote for a moratorium.

"A lot of this is related to a mistrust of BC Hydro," he said. "Personally, it's the potential for peak-time billing that is more of a concern. BC Hydro has said that's not on the table, but if they have the capacity, it's probably only a matter of time."

Peak-time billing is a reality in Ontario, where smart meters have played a role in this fall's election campaign. Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak calls mandatory smart meters a tax grab because the data are used to charge more for energy consumed during peak demand periods.

Mr. Taft said BC Hydro needs to win back the trust not just of mayors, but of its ratepayers before suspicions about the smart meter program will abate.

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Among the resolutions up for discussion at this week's meeting of the Union of B.C. Municipalities:

Urge the province to initiate policy analysis and legislative changes to implement online voting for the 2014 local-government elections.

Lobby the province to increase financial support for all coastal communities to provide emergency-response warning systems for tsunamis.

Request that the province direct a portion of all carbon taxes to enable an increase in the proportional share of provincial funding for all transit services and programs.

Petition the province to amend the Police Act so the costs of homicide investigations are borne by provincial and not municipal taxpayers.

Urge the CRTC to prohibit public telephone providers from removing phone booths from communities.

Change the organization's name to the Union of British Columbia Local Governments to reflect its entire membership.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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