Secrecy surrounds “smart power” issue

by Angela Chagnon

The Smart Grid/Smart Meter program in Vermont seems to be only just coming to the attention of many Vermonters. While some have been aware of changes taking place within their utility companies, many are surprised to find that the plan to implement these changes has been in place for quite some time.

Vermonters may find it interesting to learn that the Public Service Board issued a Protective Order on May 24, 2010, to CVPS regarding the utility’s “Smart Power Plan”. The Order says:

“On May 19, 2010, CVPS filed a motion for confidential treatment of a CD-ROM containing the Company’s SmartPower business cases using pessimistic assumptions filed in response to questions raised by Public Service Board (“Board”) staff at the Technical Workshop held in this matter on May 14, 2010. In its motions, CVPS requests that this information be placed under seal and kept confidential.”

Page 3 of the Order reads, “Because no party filed any comment or noted any disagreement with CVPS’s statements, we accept the Company’s averment as true for purposes of its motion.”

A February 8, 2007 Memorandum from the Public Service Board (PSB) reveals that Vermont utilities had previously considered implementing Smart Metering/Time-Based Rates in 2005. Some utilities were not capable of offering the alternative rates, but those that were able, such as BED, did so on a voluntary basis.

However, BED’s customers didn’t trip over themselves in a mad dash to sign up for the alternative rate schedule. Footnote 5 on page 3 of the Memorandum reads, “As of March 2006, only 48 out of nearly 20,000 customers chose to be served under a voluntary time-based rate.”

The secrecy surrounding the Smart Meter issue is puzzling. If it is such a great project, as proponents claim, why hide the facts from taxpayers? Why is the issue being rushed through political channels without any frank discussion of the project’s risks?

For instance, on June 6 the Burlington City Council authorized the Burlington Electric Department (BED) to use $1 million in taxpayer money for the Smart Grid/Smart Meter project bond that is pending voter approval.

The resolution asks that the “expenses” of $1 million be reimbursed to BED for “project expenditures” related to the $13.5 million bond that will be voted on in a special election June 28th.

Placed on the Council’s consent agenda, the resolution afforded no time for the public to react before being approved. It was sponsored by the Burlington Finance Board and Councilors Kurt Wright (R), Karen Paul (D), Emma Mulvaney-Stanak (P ), and Council President Bill Keough (D).

The number of votes needed to approve a $7 million bond in March that would have paid for the purchase of Smart Meters did not materialize, and the bond issue went down. But the $13.5 million bond to be voted on later this month includes funding for that project (see earlier story here).

The $1 million BED spent on the Smart Grid program and taken from the city’s cash pool has never been approved by voters. Apparently BED felt confident that their bond would pass in March and life would go on as usual. Unfortunately for them, the bond failed and thus the special election to desperately squeeze the money out of taxpayers.

The cover-ups, the hurry to get the plan through, and the lack of reliable, timely information about the Smart Grid/Smart Meter project are not endearing for some Burlington residents.

“I plan to vote no on June 28 for three reasons,” writes MJ Farmer, a former electric utility engineer, in an e-mail to True North Reports. She lists the reasons as “cost, security/privacy issues, and potential health issues.”

“After the BT scandal, I don’t trust City officials who promise ‘It’s going to save you money’,” she continued.

“Remember BED wants you to use electricity, that is how they pay their employees and make money,” Farmer warns. “BED only wants you to cut back electric usage during peak load. I have worked hard to reduce our usage over the past 7 years, but my BED rates have doubled in that time.”

Citing various nationwide reports of health concerns pertaining to Smart Meters’ Electric Magnetic Fields (EMF) output and privacy concerns as to how the collected data is stored, she concludes, “There is no hurry for smart meter, let’s get Burlington’s fiscal house in order first.”

Although BED’s website says that money from the bond will be used to purchase Smart Meters, the ballot question makes no mention of Smart Meters – besides the other projects included in the bond, the reference to the statewide project is merely worded as “Smart Grid technology”.

BED’s decision to implement the Smart Grid/Smart Meter program while ignoring the economic risks of rushing such a major project only adds to the list of Burlington’s atrocious track record of financial decisions. How many more Burlington Telecoms, Moran Plants, and Airport parking garages can the taxpayers handle?

Burlington’s track record so far: Airport, Burlington Telecom, Moran Plant.