Is BC ready for smart metres?

Vancouver's Pulse Energy measured electricity use at eight Olympic venues

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BC Hydro is preparing to roll out smart meters in every home. The tech industry is ready to jump on board, but are government and citizens prepared?

The Olympics were a key moment for David Helliwell and his start-up company, Pulse Energy. Eight venues, outfitted with Pulse energy monitoring technology, allowed visitors to view online how much energy was being used at those sites at any given time. It marked the first time that any Olympic site collected and reported energy consumption data, and it attracted a considerable amount of media attention as part of Vancouver's 'Greenest Games' billing.

The high-profile project led to more lucrative deals for Pulse -- Helliwell says the London 2012 Olympic organizing committee is now interested in tracking energy use at its venues -- and also pushed smart meters into the public sphere.

The potential for business development around smart meter deployment is huge, says Helliwell and other industry experts. But as utilities roll out these programs around the world, they are being met with public opposition and concerns about privacy, reliability, and cost.

Smart meters are coming to B.C. – but are we ready for them? And what can we learn from those jurisdictions that are ahead of the curve?

'We need to change our behaviour': Campbell

Smart meters are where consumers plug into the smart grid of the future. Smart meters relay real-time energy use data to utilities and customers, and can also communicate with home appliances, opening up opportunities for tighter demand-side management and increased conservation, especially during times of peak demand, when electricity is most expensive.

In 2007, Premier Gordon Campbell told delegates at the annual convention of the Union of B.C. Municipalities that within five years, 1.7 million homes and businesses in B.C. would have a smart meter.

"We need to change our behaviour and when we do, we will all save money," Campbell said.

But the implementation never happened, and smart meters fell off the public radar -- until the Olympics, and, not long after that, the GLOBE conference on business and the environment. There BC Hydro's Bev Van Ruyven (now its executive vice president) reiterated the province's commitment to smart grid technology and announced that Hydro would be "substantially complete" its smart metering program by 2012.

Clean Energy Act 'changed the whole picture'

And not long after that, the provincial government released the Clean Energy Act, in which smart meters and smart grid infrastructure were a cornerstone. Not only that, but, under the act, these and other "marquee" energy projects do not have to obtain approval from the BC Utilities Commission.

This "changed the whole picture" for the industry, says Ludo Bertsch, president of Horizon Technologies. Bertsch has spent the last two decades designing smart grid hardware and software, and now mostly does consulting work.

"The B.C. Clean Energy Act was very important in that it laid out the foundation to say we are not going to pull it, we are going to move ahead with smart meters.

"Before, we were getting the message out there that this [smart metering] is important," Bertsch says. "But leading up, we were concerned that government was going to pull it. It's a lot of money."

BC Hydro has budgeted $660 million for the entire program. That includes the smart meters, telecommunications system, data management system, in home feedback tools and conservation rates.

Smart meter carrots and sticks

If a smart meter is the carrot to encourage customers to conserve energy and shift time of use, rate structuring is the stick. BC Hydro's conservation rate, also known as a tiered or graduated rate, came into effect April 1, 2010. Under this rate, residential customers get, over a two-month billing period, 1,350 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity at 6.27 cents per kWh. Every additional kWh after that costs 8.78 cents.

Some utilities have also introduced peak pricing; during times of high demand, the cost per kilowatt hour is higher to encourage people to switch activities to off-peak times.

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