by SUSAN MANN
Hydro One’s switch of thousands of rural customers to manual meter readings because their smart meters were unable to reliably transmit electricity usage data is another example of Ontario farmers’ concerns with the system, says an Ontario Federation of Agriculture spokesman.
President Don McCabe says farmers have been concerned for some time about the need for a stable electricity system “with a competitive cost rate associated with it.” An Ontario federation factsheet says Ontario farms use about three per cent of Ontario’s electricity or 4.5 terawatt-hours annually.
Hydro One Networks Inc. applied for and received permission from the Ontario Energy Board last year to switch the rural customers with unreliable smart meter data transmission to manual meter reading. The permission lasts until 2019.
The utility also received energy board permission to bill those customers based on tiered pricing instead of the time-of-use billing that smart meter customers receive. Under tiered pricing, they pay 9.9 cents per kilowatt hour for the first 1,000 KWh of usage per month and 11.6 cents per KWh for the remainder, says Hydro One spokesperson Tiziana Baccega Rosa. Those rates apply to the winter months, which began Nov. 1 and go to April 30. Rates for the summer months haven’t been set yet.
She says “nothing is changing for these customers, it’s just really become official.”
Similar to the time-of-use rates that customers with working smart meters pay, the tiered pricing is set by the energy board, Baccega Rosa says.
She says 36,000 customers across rural Ontario had been having their meters read manually “for quite some time” and before the utility received permission from the Ontario Energy Board to make the change. Smart meters were installed across Ontario in 2006, with time-of-use billing starting in late 2008, she says.
“These are customers who live in places where there is not a reliable cellular signal so this is why the smart meters can’t communicate,” she says. The smart meters either didn’t send a signal or infrequently sent signals.
In its application to the energy board, Hydro One says the majority of customers with unreliable smart meter data transmission live outside southern Ontario in very rural and sparsely populated areas. There are several reasons for the meters’ problems, including:
- Extremely rugged terrain with hills, valleys and the Canadian Shield, all of which block or absorb radio frequency signals.
- Dense foliage that impacts signal strength and range depending on the type of trees, the season and other environmental factors.
- The lack of a commercial cellular network to transmit the meter data or a low level of communication reliability. This situation will not improve until there’s improved telecommunication infrastructure or when technological advances in automated meter reading infrastructure become available, the application says.
“It is not possible to economically connect all meters to the smart meter network or make all meters communicate reliably enough to issue regular time-of-use bills based on actual meter readings,” Hydro One says in the conclusion of its application to the energy board.
Hydro One received permission to make the switch in March 2015 and started notifying customers in December 2015, Baccega Rosa says.
The meters are manually read four times a year and for the remainder of the year customers get estimated bills.
Hydro One says in its application the demand management opportunities “associated with time-of-use pricing will not be available to two-tiered pricing customers.”
It isn’t known how the switch is impacting customers’ bills. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture didn’t have data, nor did organizations such as Dairy Farmers of Ontario for dairy farmers or Ontario Pork for pig producers.
McCabe says there are too many variations between farm businesses to “make a blanket comment here” about how the switch is impacting affected farmers.
He says the federation’s bottom line when it comes to electricity for farmers is “we still need a very affordable electrical power rate in this province.”
The federation has been working on getting more affordable electrical power for Ontario’s farmers “for a number of years. We’ve been trying to offer various solutions to the government and at this particular juncture nothing has taken hold,” McCabe says.
Ontario opposition agriculture critic Toby Barrett, the Progressive Conservative MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk, says the whole smart meter “program has been mismanaged from the beginning.”
Farmers in his area warned the government 10 to 11 years ago at a legislative committee holding hearings in his riding on smart meters that the “technology isn’t ready yet,” he says.
He says it cost $2 billion to install the meters rather than the $1 billion the government said it would cost to install them.
“To me it’s bad enough to go over budget, but even then when the thing doesn’t work and if it hasn’t resulted in conserving energy, why on earth did they think they had the right to do this in the first place?” Barrett asks. BF