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Smart meters to be installed this summer

BC Hydro hasn’t set dates but installations must be finished by end of 2012

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The smart meter does all the work for you. With its last gasp before it shorts out, it sends a signal to BC Hydro that triggers a small red dot on a map, showing the Crown corporation precisely where the outage has happened.

Gary Murphy, chief project officer, said the smart meter could be particularly useful for outlying communities such as Bamfield, Tofino and Ucluelet on Vancouver Island.

"You can imagine how important that is in remote areas of the province, when we're driving away, and some customer is still without power, and then having to send it back," he said. "It's frustrating for the customer, expensive for us and no one wins."

The smart meter can also help combat electricity theft. The current meters have had several instances of grow-op managers re-routing electrical wiring to make it look like the ratepayer at the adjacent house is using a higher-than-normal level of electricity than they otherwise might at unusual times.

The smart meter can help identify electricity diversions more quickly and direct the power authority to the point of theft.

Criticisms of the program are numerous and varied. Jim Quail, executive director of the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre, argues that the program is a waste of a billion dollars and, drawing on examples from the United States, argues that the information flowing through to the meters is easy to hack.

Hoping to prevent this, BC Hydro uses data encryption and stacks seven to ten layers of security on top of the information that flows through the smart grid. Fiona Taylor, acting director of the SMI program, said BC Hydro is actually going to hire hackers to try and penetrate their network to test their own security.

"Ethical hacking," she called it. "We will actually test our own solution set with a professional security firm to see if they can break into it before we put anything live."

Another criticism concerns time-of-use billing - specifically, the concern that smart meters could set the stage for such an initiative in British Columbia.

Time-of-use billing charges different rates for using electricity at specific times in the day. In Ontario, for example, it costs $0.089 per kilowatt-hour to use electricity in the summer between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. - not exactly a peak time for electricity use.

Between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., however, it jumps to $0.107 per kilowatt-hour, making it more expensive to use electricity in the afternoon than in the morning.