Energy minister says utilities commission can’t reject smart meter opt-out fees

B.C.’s independent power regulator won’t be allowed to reject smart meter opt-out fees, nor can it go back and investigate the validity of the controversial program, according to a special order from the province’s energy minister.

Bill Bennett issued the directive to the B.C. Utilities Commission in advance of B.C. Hydro’s application for smart meter fees, expected in the next few weeks.

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The order limits the commission to focusing entirely on whether the fees, up to $35 a month, are fair. The commission retains its ability to lower the fees if it sees fit, but not eliminate them entirely or make any changes to how Hydro runs the smart meter program.

“We, frankly, did not want the BCUC to be tempted to go back and revisit that decision from several years ago, so we circumscribed what we wanted them to do, which is focus on the decision today,” Bennett said in an interview with the Times Colonist.

Hydro has told customers it intends to charge $35 a month to anyone who refuses a new wireless smart meter and wants to keep an old analog device.

Customers can also choose to pay $100 to have the smart meter wireless transmitter disabled, and an additional $20 a month to have it manually read by Hydro.

Hydro wants the fees to begin in December, but, under law, must get approval from the utilities commission to impose extra charges on customers.

Bennett’s special directive strips the commission of the power to reject the fees, and says it must not do anything to interfere in the smart meter program, meter installations or the opt-out provisions.

Instead, the commission “must ensure that the rates allow the authority to collect sufficient revenue in each fiscal year” to cover costs for smart meters, radio-off meters and old analog meters.

The commission should focus on examining whether Hydro’s opt-out fees are fair, and not allow it to examine whether the $1-billion program should have been launched in 2010, Bennett said.

Government sets energy policy and projects like smart meters, while the commission’s role is to look at rates, said Bennett.

The smart meters are designed to modernize the power grid by wirelessly transmitting usage information directly to B.C. Hydro.

But 60,000 customers have refused the devices, complaining about aggressive installers and health concerns from wireless transmissions.

After considerable public pressure, Hydro agreed to the opt-out program in July. It has argued the fees, which amount to as much as $420 a year per customer, are necessary to cover extra costs and manual meter readings.

Bennett said he asked Hydro tough questions when it first approached him with the fees.

“The first question I asked [Hydro] was, OK, where did you get these numbers from?” said Bennett. “I made it very clear to Hydro that you guys better be damn sure you aren’t padding these costs, that they are real costs.”

The entire smart meter program is a “billion-dollar boondoggle” that should have been examined by the utilities commission years ago, said NDP energy critic John Horgan.

He called the restrictions Bennett has imposed on the commission “a shame and a farce.”

“It’s an embarrassment,” Horgan said. “If I was a commissioner of the utilities commission, I would resign.”

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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