Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Smart meters don’t look so smart

Smart meters don’t look so smart
Waterloo Record

September 16, 2010 Editorial

It’s always easier for politicians to conceive of a good idea than deliver that idea alive and kicking into the real world. Just ask Ontario’s governing Liberals, whose so-called “smart” hydro meters look far less intelligent today than when they were first proposed many months, and $1 billion in spending, ago. In fact, you could say the whole scheme was short-circuited by the Liberals themselves.

These were the meters that were supposed to help people cut their electricity bills by shifting some of their heaviest consumption to times of day when the province’s overall demand for energy has fallen. So, as consumers saved themselves money, they would take stress off the system in the hours of peak energy demands and reduce the need for Ontario to import costly hydro from the United States. It was to be, in the preferred jargon of bureaucrats, a “win-win” situation for all. This, at least, was the theory.

Perhaps predictably, for the government that gave us the eHealth foul-up, things didn’t go as planned.

The latest reports show that consumers on smart meters largely are delaying very little of their heavy electrical use until after 9 p.m. and before 7 a.m. As a result, very little energy is being conserved.

One reason for this failure is that even the people who use their smart meters and delay washing clothes or dishes until after 9 a.m. are seeing their energy bills go up, not down. This electricity cost surge is due not only to the harmonized sales tax recently introduced by the Liberals but to the rising price of energy, something the Liberals also approved. The off-peak rates of 5.3 cents per kilowatt hour are actually 20 per cent higher than they were a year ago.

It’s true that using the smart meters and delaying heavy consumption to specific times of day is still cheaper than using a lot of electricity during the more expensive peak hours. The trouble is, given the overall rise in hydro costs, even the most frugal and conservation-conscious consumers don’t feel as if they’re saving money because the bills they get each month have gone through the roof. Any incentive is too small for them to see.

Moreover, when the $1 billion cost of installing all these smart meters is taken into consideration, the faltering start to the entire initiative is even more disappointing.

Nor is there a quick fix in the Liberals’ tool box. Increasing the price difference even more between the cheaper off-peak rate and the peak rate would persuade more people to change their habits and use their smart meters to take advantage of time-of-use pricing.

But lowering the off-peak rate might lead to another hike in the peak rate. That would take a nasty bite out of consumers who still don’t even have a smart meter. It could also hurt seniors who might understandably feel too tired to reschedule heavy energy using chores to late night.
Smart meters are still a good idea, even if their delivery was spoiled by other Liberal policies.

But unless Premier McGuinty can sort this one out soon, he may feel the jolt from voters in next year’s provincial election.

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