City explores digital metering alternatives

Penticton council directs staff to investigate the costs of allowing residents to opt out of digital meter program

  • Mar. 8, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Staff at the City of Penticton will investigate  how much it will cost to allow residents alternatives to digital metering of electricity and water, in drafting a potential opt-out program.

Penticton council will consider whether or not to allow residents to choose not to have digital meters in an automated meter reading (AMR) system, that uses slightly different technology than the Fortis smart meter units. The city is considering the opt-out program after approximately 100 people came to an information meeting two weeks ago to express concerns about the potential health effects of electromagnetic radio frequency (RF) waves.

Operations director Mitch Moroziuk explained that the city has installed AMR electric meters since 2003, and the conversion is 85 per cent complete. They were expecting to reach 98 per cent completion in 2012. Since 2004, 89 per cent of water meters have been converted.

Switching back would also likely result in additional costs to the city, Moroziuk said. For each electrical meter, the average cost could be $105 and water meters could be in the range of $190 —  both dependent on the class of meter. To change out all electric meters would cost the city $1.57 million, and $421,800 for the water meters.

The move to AMR meters was expected to reduce operational costs in the form of meter reading time, which required 22 days per month previously but would be decreased to four days. The meter reading costs would be reduced to $24,279 from $110,360 per year. A single manual read is estimated to cost $25 for an isolated spot, and $6 for a manual read as part of a route.

The exact costs of an opt-out program could not be determined until staff drafted potential programs, Moroziuk added.

Presenting four options to council, staff were recommending that the city move forward with installations, but draft an opt-out program that gives customers an option if they were concerned about the effects of RF emissions.

Coun. Garry Litke said he wasn’t going to accept the word of Health Canada given the regulatory body’s history of approving of behaviours that are later deemed to be unsafe, citing the example of women who smoke when pregnant.

However, many devices around the home — like garage door openers, cellphones and remotes — use RF frequencies and generate little concern.

“Why are we worried about this one particular thing?” he said, comparing RF wave exposures to a paper cut — one isn’t much, but 1,000 all at once could be too much. “I think we have to respect their fear by having an opt-out program.”

Coun. Andrew Jakubeit said he wasn’t leaning toward those on the “doom and gloom” side, especially since many of the city’s AMRs have been in place since 2003.

“You can’t expect to live in a bubble,” he said, adding that he was sympathetic to allowing residents to have choice. “We have to have an opt-out process.”

Coun. Wes Hopkin said he was “somewhat disappointed” in the forum in that opponents of digital meters did not present peer-reviewed evidence that showed a causal link between RF and health effects.

“From what I’ve reviewed so far, this isn’t a problem. But there are concerns in the community,” he said.

Coun. Helena Konanz said that even though “the science is questionable,” the city and staff should be commended for offering opponents a venue to voice concerns. As one of the only such meetings in the province, she said, it drew many people from outside Penticton. “They haven’t had that platform to speak,” she said.

Coun. John Vassilaki suggested the city consider the third option presented that called for ceased installation of AMR meters and have staff research another platform for the remaining meter installations that do not use RF transmission. “Who do we trust?” he said, noting that different information comes from the corporate entity selling the machines, city staff and those who are now concerned.

Vassilaki was the lone opponent to the motion to continue with the AMR program as staff research and create an opt-out program.