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City hears more smart meter debate

Meter readers outline lost jobs; Hydro pledges greater efficiency

Lost jobs or lost electricity? Two sides of the smart meter debate came to the City of North Vancouver to make their cases before council Monday.

Gwenne Farrell, vice-president of Canadian Office and Professional Employees Local 378, said the program means BC Hydro will lay off 400 meter readers, starting as early as next month. "We've been asking for a transition plan for these meter reader jobs from government and BC Hydro since 2007," she said.

"In April of 2011, some of our meter readers, calling themselves the Fightin' 400, sent Premier (Christy) Clark flowers and a letter asking for a meeting. Of course that meeting never occurred. Soon afterwards, Minister (Rich) Coleman agreed to retraining when questioned on CKNW, saying 'They will be transitioned to other jobs within BC Hydro and given the opportunity for retraining so they will have jobs, just doing something different.'"

However, said Farrell, Hydro executives have told her that they received no instructions from government to produce a retraining plan.

"We are seeking an anytime, anyplace meeting with either the premier or the minister, to talk about these issues, but they refuse to meet with us," she said. Farrell noted that the meter readers are not Hydro employees, but work for another company, named Accenture, that has a meter-reading contract with the power utility. A few have found temporary work installing smart meters, but Farrell said she would like to see many more people offered these jobs.

"Why not retrain these people to help them qualify for this work? They already have valuable institutional knowledge of BC Hydro's systems and structures," she said.

While lobbying for membership, Farrell said, the union had encountered several more "important, unanswered questions" about the meter program, such as privacy concerns and the potential sale of usage information. Also, Farrell asked whether the meters were a precursor to time-of-use billing, in which power is more expensive during peak hours and cheaper at times of lower


"It penalizes families, it penalizes seniors, and it penalizes small business, who don't have the opportunity to switch their habits," she said. "While government has denied that it's looking at timeof-use billing, they refuse to rule it out. Putting in the smart meter program without time-of-use billing really doesn't make sense. It's like buying a bunch of can openers and then saying 'I'm never going to buy cans.'"

"Let me be clear," she said in closing, "we are not here to fight for obsolete jobs. That's why we're looking for a practical transition plan."

Following Farrell to the microphone was Cindy Verschoor, BC Hydro's communication manager for the smart meter program. "Today we are using more electricity than ever before," she said. "The electricity grid was built in the 1950s, when we used very little technology and our industries weren't digital and our businesses weren't digital. You can imagine the stresses that have been put on the grid over the past 60 years have been considerable."

Verschoor told council that trying to change consumers' behaviour was only a small part of the benefits Hydro hoped to reap from the meter program. "In fact, even if customers don't save one single electron of electricity, this program will pay for itself, because 80 per cent of the benefits come from efficiencies on the BC Hydro side of the grid."

Hydro currently operates a grid with 74,000 kilometres of power line and hundreds of substations essentially "blind," said Verschoor. The automated, wireless smart meters will given the utility real-time information on power outages and their specific location. At present, Hydro relies on customers to report a blackout before sending a crew to try to find it. Having up-todate information on regional usage will also allow for power to be targeted more effectively.

"Today we send too much electricity down the line because we really don't know how much we need at the other side," she said.

Verschoor said Hydro has no plans to move towards timeof use billing, and said information gathered falls under the province's Protection of Privacy Act. When questioned by Mayor Darrell Mussatto about the fate of the meter readers, Verschoor said about 80 would keep their jobs. There wasn't much Hydro could do directly to help the others, she said, as they aren't Hydro employees. She did note that Accenture does hold contracts with other utilities in British Columbia.

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