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Wednesday, 06 August 2014 15:13

Wall government’s actions will determine political fallout from smart meters fiasco

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Swift Current residents might sometimes question the sense of having the City of Swift Current Light and Power Department distribute the electrical power generated by SaskPower, but those doubts might be slightly less as a result of the current debacle at the Crown Corporation over smart meters.

SaskPower clients are keeping a wary eye on their smart meters, which are considered to be a potential fire risk and will be replaced over the next six to nine months during a costly exercise. In Swift Current however, the City has not received any reports of faulty equipment since the completion of the project to install smart meters in 2012.
The Centron smart meters installed by Light and Power in Swift Current are manufactured by the U.S. technology and services company Itron.
According to Mitch Minken, the general manager of infrastructure and operations at the City of Swift Current, these meters are not as technologically-advanced as the meters installed by SaskPower.
Light and Power’s smaller service area means a simpler meter that emits data by radio frequency could deliver the required results of a more effective service.
SaskPower has already installed 105,000 smart meters when concerns over six meter failures resulted in the suspension of installation by mid July. After two more meter failures and growing public concern over exploding smart meters,the provincial government stepped in on July 30 to order SaskPower to remove all the meters installed so far.
Before this announcement by Bill Boyd, the minister responsible for the provincial Crown Corporation, the senior management at SaskPower felt it was not warranted to replace all the smart meters and that these problems were within the acceptable failure rates for electronic equipment.
For the provincial government this was obviously not good enough, despite the huge financial implications to replace the 105,000 smart meters already installed. Media reports on Aug. 1 indicated this cost to be around $47 million, which includes the cost of the units already installed and the labour cost to remove and replace them as well as the cost of the units that were still to be installed.
In media statements prior to this decision, SaskPower insisted it was “comfortable that all risks have been mitigated as fully as possible” and in all instances the problems were contained to the immediate area around the faulty meters.
It was clearly the right decision by the provincial government to pull the plug on these smart meters. Regardless of how small the risk, it is unacceptable to expect from SaskPower clients to be exposed to the potential danger of injury or even death in case of another exploding smart meter that causes a more substantial fire to a building.
The potential political fallout for Premier Brad Wall’s government might therefore not be so significant, even though the $47-million price tag of this debacle has already been called the Saskatchewan Party government’s own Spudco affair, a reference to a failed and costly effort by a Saskatchewan NDP government in the late 1990s to kick-start the potato industry in the province.
However, the final verdict by voters on the smart-meter affair will depend on the Wall government’s handling of the issue over the next few months.
Wall has already made a commitment that the total cost of this recall will not come from the pockets of ratepayers, but so far the government has not indicated how that will be ensured. Will the government be able to put appropriate financial and accounting measures in place to ring fence the $47 million and at what additional cost? Considering that SaskPower is a publicly-funded electrical utility, it seems unlikely that ratepayers will not be on the hook.
Wall indicated the alternate means of paying for this cost will include discussions with Sensus, the U.S. supplier of these smart meters, to bear some of the cost. However, it is most unlikely that this North Carolina company, which is providing smart meter and other clean technology services to clients on five continents, will be keen to do that.
In a media release on Aug. 1, Sensus President Randy Bays stated site inspections and laboratory testing is pointing towards external factors such as water intrusion through holes in meter boxes and hot socket conditions as reasons for these smart meter incidents.
SaskPower’s own statements that the meters comply with industry standards and that the failures are within acceptable risk parameters might make it even more difficult to receive any financial restitution from the manufacturer, either through negotiation or litigation in a U.S. court.
Such legal action will add even more cost to the entire affair and will recall the court battle between the provincial government and plaintiffs during the Spudco debacle.
Politically, it will be crucial for the Wall government to ensure the investigation into the smart meter fiasco is open and transparent. The NDP opposition has already questioned the government’s decision to conduct an internal review through the Crown Investments Corporation (CIC).
Opposition leader Cam Broten noted the CIC is the government’s holding company for Crown corporations and he called for an independent investigation by the provincial auditor.
It is often said that for justice to be done, there must be an appearance of justice. The Saskatchewan Party opposition members did not think justice was done when the 2003 report by NDP deputy minister Dan Perrins into Spudco lacked detailed accounting of equipment and transactions.
Whether it is potatoes or smart meters, the requirements for accountability and due diligence are still the same.
Matthew Liebenberg is a reporter with the Prairie Post. Contact him with your comments about this opinion piece at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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Matthew Liebenberg