Smart meters, smart idea

Bev Van Ruyven dreams about talking to her fridge and thermostat on a regular basis.

Bev Van Ruyven dreams about talking to her fridge and thermostat on a regular basis.

BC Hydro’s executive vice-president even imagines calling up her appliances while taking a transatlantic flight, to order them to use less power.

It’s the future of smart meters.

And for Yukoners, it’s as foreign as life with the Jetsons.

The territory’s old-school meters read how much power a household uses – and that’s it.

But in cities like Vancouver and Toronto, smart meters offer a window into the intricate electrical world of each household.

Using “a web portal,” customers can track their power consumption down to the second.

So can the utility.

“Communicating by billing is not the best,” said Toronto Hydro Electrical Systems vice-president Ivano Labricciosa, during Yukon Energy’s charette this week.

So, in 2005, the utility started installing smart meters in every Toronto home.

“We did 20,000 a month,” said Labricciosa.

“And it took us a bunch of years.”

By 2010, the job was finished.

It remains the largest install in North America.

Switching Whitehorse would have taken the utility less than a month, he said.

The smart meters allow Toronto’s utility to price power according to demand.

At peak time, when demand is high, power costs more – about nine cents a kilowatt/hour.

During low consumption periods, it costs less – about three cents.

The idea is to prompt customers to do the laundry, or turn on the dishwasher, when power is cheap.

And – in Van Ruyven’s world – customers could even call their fridges and thermostats when prices spike, ordering their appliances to cut back on consumption.

In Whitehorse, Yukon Energy fires up the diesels to meet peak demand.

And we don’t use all our available power at night – water spills over the dam, said climate change expert and Green Party chair John Streicker.

“We as a society could change that,” he said.

“We could put our hot-water tanks on a timer and run our dishwashers at night.

“This way we’d smooth out our energy use and not have to go to diesel.”

The Yukon government is drafting a net metering policy to allow homeowners and businesses producing their own power to sell it back to the grid.

To do this, interested businesses and homeowners would need a new meter.

However, these wouldn’t necessarily be as savvy as smart meters.

“If you look at the cost of changing out a meter, the difference in price between a net meter and a smart meter isn’t so much,” said Streicker.

“So they might as well go all the way, to smart meters.”

Smart meters would do what net meters do, and more, allowing Yukon Energy to raise rates during peak power use and lower rates in lulls.

In BC, smart meters, like net meters, also allow consumers to sell power back to the grid.

“We buy lots from independent power producers,” said Van Ruyven, mentioning wind, biomass and run-of-the-river power projects.

The utility is expecting to get 25 per cent of its supply from independent power producers in the next few years.

It is also planning to cut growing demand by 66 per cent simply by educating its customers.

Last year, BC Hydro outfitted two containers with glass fronts and furnished them.

Then, it paid two guys to live there, side by side on a busy street corner in downtown Vancouver.

One of the guys was energy efficient – the other was an energy slob.

The utility also has flashy ad campaigns, video games for kids and webpages that allow consumers to monitor their power usage around the clock.

The BC government has mandated that 93 per cent of BC Hydro’s power must be clean and renewable.

If Alexander Graham Bell were alive today, he’d be in shock, said Van Ruyven.

He’d see all these people talking on cellphones and ask, “Where are the wires?”

But if Thomas Edison showed up, he wouldn’t be the least bit surprised, she said.

He’d think, “Things are pretty much as I left them.”

“We have to work hard to change that,” said Van Ruyven.

Compared to Toronto, the Yukon is “community-minded,” said Labricciosa.

“And you have an opportunity to take a strong stance and really set an example.”

It might seem like the best option is always the cheapest, he said.

“But you have to look at the price you pay later.”

Outfitting Toronto with smart meters cost Labricciosa’s utility $150 million.

“Where is the business case to do this?” he said.

“I say, ‘Where is the business case for having a computer?’

“At some point you just know you need things as part of society.”

Switching to smart meters is not a question of, “Do I or don’t I,” said Labricciosa.

“It’s a question of when.”

To learn more about the Yukon government’s draft net metering policy go to http://netmetering.gov.yk.ca.

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com