Meters: safe radiation or hog wash

The controversy over so-called smart meters is about to come to a head in British Columbia, where municipalities are debating BC Hydro's plans to install the wireless devices amid concerns about their impact on residents' health, privacy and power bills.

Delegates at the Union of British Columbia Municipalities convention in Vancouver will vote Thursday on a resolution that calls for a moratorium on BC Hydro's $930-million smart meter program, which is expected to be rolled out across the province by the end of next year.

The resolution itself isn't expected to have any impact on the utility's plans, but it foreshadows the difficulties BC Hydro could face during the coming year as it attempts to visit each of its 1.8 million customers to make the upgrades.

The meters measure residents' power consumption and then use wireless signals to beam that information back to BC Hydro, which says the new technology will make the province's energy grid more efficient, sustainable and better able to respond to outages.

But opponents cite a wide-ranging list of concerns.

The radiation is dangerous. Or the wireless signals put their privacy at risk. Or the meters will cause electricity bills to increase. Or, at the very least, the province's plan to install them in every home is taking away their freedom to make their own decisions.

Those opponents have set up websites, started petitions and convinced a number of municipalities, including Victoria, Invermere and Colwood, to pass their own resolutions calling on BC Hydro to stop or delay the smart meters.

A small group has been camped outside the Union of British Columbia Municipalities convention in Vancouver this week holding placards and passing out flyers.

While BC Hydro has no plans to reconsider its smart meter program, regardless of what delegates in Vancouver decide, executive vice-president Greg Reimer said the corporation is sensitive to the controversy.

"I think (Energy) Minister (Rich) Coleman has been very clear that the smart meter program is going ahead; nonetheless, we think it's important to have this discussion with all British Columbians," Reimer said in an interview.

"A lot of folks have expressed some concerns on the basis of things they've been hearing from others, and what we're trying to do is to provide them with the facts so that they can make a valued decision."

Coleman wasn't available for an interview, but in a written statement, he noted the convention resolution isn't binding.

"Smart meters are the global standard for a modern power grid, about one billion smart meters will be installed worldwide by 2020," the statement said.

"These new smart meters will provide many benefits to B.C. families and businesses, helping them save money and also allow them to make choices about how they manage their electricity consumption."

BC Hydro is a sponsor at the convention, where the corporation has set up an information booth and is handing out information about smart meters in delegate packages.

That material repeats the corporation's insistence that smart meters only broadcast several times a day, and that living next to a smart meter for 20 years would expose a resident to the same level of radiation as a 30-minute cellphone call.

 said BC Hydro has received "a couple of thousand" complaints about the smart meters and has been trying to work with each customer to figure out a solution.

In most cases, BC Hydro hopes education will be enough to convince wary residents to accept the meters, but customers also have the option of relocating the meters farther away from their home — at their own cost.

About 100,000 smart meters have been installed so far.

Smart meters have generated similar controversy elsewhere, including Ontario, where it has emerged as an issue in the ongoing provincial election campaign, and throughout the United States. At least one county in California has passed a bylaw making it illegal to install the devices.

The resolution in front of B.C. mayors on Thursday cites a World Health Organization news release from May that classified electromagnetic radiation, such as those emitted by cellphones, as "possibly carcinogenic." Smart meter critics have also pointed to the WHO statement as proof the devices are harmful.

But the WHO statement did not refer specifically to smart meters, and an official from the United Nations organization has publicly suggested smart meters aren't a major concern.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control examined BC Hydro's smart meter devices, and concluded they are far below the radiation exposure limits set by Health Canada.

Invermere's mayor, Gerry Taft, said his community wants information from an independent source, rather than from BC Hydro.

Taft said even if concerns about the smart meter program are unfounded, many residents just don't trust the power company. He noted some municipalities in B.C. already use the same technology for their water meters, without controversy.

"I'm not an expert in radiation or any kind of health field, so I think what we're looking for is more review and potentially independent review," said Taft.

Colwood resident Sharon Noble is among those leading the charge against smart meters, and she said she just doesn't believe BC Hydro. She doesn't believe the corporation's claims that the devices are safe, that they save power or that they won't result in higher energy bills.

"These smart meters are wireless, so it's like having a mini cell tower on the outside of your home, they're forcing us to live with this," Noble said while protesting outside the Union of British Columbia Municipalities convention.

"They're wrong."

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