Justine Hunter, Globe and Mail, Nov. 03, 2011
While the B.C. government was busy with what now stands as the province’s worst example of government communications on a major public policy – selling the harmonized sales tax – it discouraged BC Hydro from distracting the public with a sales job of its own.
Which is why officials at the Crown corporation have waited until this month to launch a new ad campaign to persuade British Columbians that smart meters are a good thing.
Driven by a government-imposed deadline, BC Hydro is already well into what it is touting as the fastest smart meter installation program in the world. So the print, radio and television advertising blitz on behalf of the $1-billion program is coming after the point of no return.
And if there is a lesson in the backlash to the HST, it is that British Columbians don’t care to have change forced upon them.
British Columbians first were told in 2007 that the new meters were coming, but details wouldn’t follow until the installation contract was signed early in 2011.
In the meantime, completing the picture that British Columbians have no choice in the matter, the meter program was exempt from review by its regulator, the BC Utilities Commission.
With BC Hydro constrained, opponents of the technology have had the field mostly to themselves to raise concerns about health, privacy and job losses. Their message got through to municipal politicians, who united behind a call for a moratorium at this year's gathering of the Union of B.C. Municipalities.
The annual UBCM convention is also where the smart meter story starts. It is where, in 2007, then-premier Gordon Campbell locked the province into the program. “We will give BC Hydro new direction to help all residential and commercial customers to install smart meters.” It would create a modern electricity grid that would encourage customers to use energy at non-peak times, he explained, to encourage conservation. “I’m announcing today that we’re going to do what it takes to have this project fully in place within the next five years, by 2012.”
Those same mayors and councillors who dutifully applauded the premier’s green energy plans then had plenty of reason, by the time they met this September, to reconsider the power of populist forces. Mr. Campbell is gone, forced out by an unprecedented backlash over the imposition of the HST. And his departure still left his B.C. Liberal government crippled, facing a long mop-up job after losing a referendum on the tax.
This fall, with the HST referendum out of the way, BC Hydro was free to engage the public on smart meters. With the 2012 deadline looming, crews are busy installing the meters with a target of half a million in operation by the end of this year. By that time, the Crown corporation will have spent $2.4-million selling its customers on the benefits of the smart meter program.
The new ads will be presented as “public service announcements” around the coming storm season – because smart meters will allow BC Hydro to detect and repair outages more quickly.
Guided by its polling, the target audience is mothers, aged 30 to 50, the same cohort that proved to be most resistant to the government’s sales pitch around the HST.
The B.C. government could have learned something from Ontario about how to roll out a new tax without getting scorched. Perhaps BC Hydro might have had an easier time if it had followed the model adopted by Hydro-Québec. That utility has started with a modest pilot project of 25,000 smart meters. The broader installation won’t begin until next summer, and only after the program has been approved by the its regulator.
Officials at Hydro-Québec are also facing opposition. But they will have a year to try to win customers over before the switchover begins in earnest.
Energy Minister Rich Coleman scoffed this week at the idea that the go-slow approach might produce less of a backlash. “If you are doing it, you should do it,” he said in an interview. He said the Quebec utility is making a mistake: “They’ll spend too much money and they won’t get any results.”
There is one more parallel to the HST debacle. Exploiting once again the notion that government is imposing something on the public without due process, we once again have Bill Vander Zalm, the architect of the anti-HST campaign, calling on people to “rise up” against smart meters. And the government is once again hoping that ignoring its critics will make the issue go away.