As BC Hydro grapples with tens of thousands of holdouts against its smart-meter program, Energy Minister Rich Coleman is facing the political fallout from a problem of his government's invention.
The $1-billion program and its timelines were set down by then-premier Gordon Campbell five years ago. A review by the B.C. Utilities Commission might have dealt with public concerns, but the Campbell government took that power away from BC Hydro's regulator – this was to be the fastest smart-meter installation program in the world, so there was no time for second-guessing.
Next, the government discouraged BC Hydro from launching an advertising blitz – the government was busy trying to manage its botched introduction of the harmonized sales tax, and didn't welcome distractions. As a result, installers were already well into their work before the project was explained to Hydro's ratepayers.
In the first week of January, BC Hydro sent out letters to roughly 85,000 ratepayers who refused to have a meter installed, saying time had run out: "We can no longer delay the installation of a new meter at your home. … Installers will visit you to exchange the old BC Hydro meter at your home for a new smart meter."
The heavy-handed treatment of this program has helped feed a populist backlash – much like the one that met the imposition of the HST. The objections range from health to privacy concerns.
After repeated intervention from Victoria, it is not surprising that BC Hydro has been timorous this week in responding to the latest incursion – a Liberal MLA stating that no one will be forced to take one of the new meters. Opponents of the program, organized as the Citizens for Safe Technology Society, released a letter this week by the Liberal caucus chair Gordon Hogg.
But as the next provincial election looms, Mr. Coleman and his Liberal government now seem to be trying to buy some time.
"BC Hydro will be working with its customers over the next several months to help them understand the benefits of new smart meters prior to final installation," Mr. Coleman wrote last week. "During this time, BC Hydro will not install a new meter without the homeowner's consent." But after that? He didn't say.
Mr. Coleman, after ducking media questions this week, took to his Twitter account to respond to Mr. Hogg's commentary. He stated BC Hydro will not install a new meter without the homeowner's consent.
On Thursday, Mr. Coleman muddied the waters further. He said Hydro will have two or three months to try to persuade holdouts, and then he'll decide what to do with the rest.
After all the mixed signals from the government this week, officials at the Crown corporation were choosing their words carefully. "We think it's important to take some extra time to work with customers who still have concerns with getting a new meter," a spokesman said in an e-mailed statement.
"In the meantime we will not install a new meter for these customers unless we have their permission." Again, BC Hydro has danced around the question of what happens after that.
Even if the Liberals manage to put off the question about the refuseniks until after the next election, the solution could still be unclear for some time. If the B.C. New Democrats win the election in May, they would study an opt-out plan.
"I know we already have a million-plus meters on walls, and we're not going to take them out," energy critic John Horgan said Thursday. But he would hand it over to the B.C. Utilities Commission to sort out the mess, five years after it started.