by Angela Chagnon
Burlington – A special election to be held on June 28th will revisit the Burlington Electric Department (BED) Smart Meters bond that voters rejected in March.
BED Manager Barbara Grimes, in an attempt to justify the special election to voters, admits that Smart Meters might “break even” with commercial customers, but for residential customers it was “a losing proposition” without federal aid.
“So when the state entered into the negotiations for Smart Grid money that included the Smart Meters,” Grimes continued, “by giving us 50% of the cost of Smart Meters it made it break even.”
In March, BED requested a $7.2 million General Obligation Bond to buy Smart Meters to place on customers’ homes. The controversial meters are designed to monitor and track customers’ energy usage, and have not been well received in other states due to the resulting skyrocketing electric rates and privacy concerns (Read previous True North Reports article HERE).
Just before that election, BED argued that the bond was needed to match a grant obtained through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). However, General Obligation Bonds require a ⅔ majority vote to pass and the item fell short of that requirement.
Now the electric company is back again, this time with a $13.5 million Revenue Bond. The new figure includes the matching funds for the Smart Meters grant, improvements to the Highgate converter station that connects the state grid to Quebec, and an “equity investment” in the Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO).
While the earlier general obligation bond needed a ⅔ majority vote to pass, a revenue bond only requires a simple majority.
BED officials attended a May 17th Neighborhood Planning Assembly (NPA) meeting for Burlington wards 4 and 7 to discuss the ballot items with residents and answer questions.
At that meeting, Grimes admitted that the Smart Meter project had not initially been supported by the department due to cost factors. She said that a survey of state utilities commissioned by the Vermont Department of Health had concluded that $800,000 a year could be saved by switching to Smart Meters. According to Grimes, BED did its own analysis and disagreed with that conclusion.
“What they were relying on was BED doing ten to fifteen percent more efficiency a year,” said Grimes. “And while we know we can always do better, we have been doing energy efficiency longer than anyone in the state of Vermont and did not feel particularly, with our view of where the economy was, that our customers were going to be able to afford to make the investment that would give us a ten to fifteen percent increase a year in energy efficiency.”
BED Commissioner Jean O’Sullivan, in a May 16 posting on Front Porch Forum, announced that if Burlington doesn’t make the switch to Smart Meters, the Public Service Board would force the change in the future. Grimes echoed that at the NPA meeting, saying that the PSB would change the rate structure which would effectively force BED to install Smart Meters on ratepayers’ homes.
However, the Public Service Department refutes that claim. Sunni Eriksen of the Consumer Affairs and Public Information Division said that although “some places were transitioning” to Smart Meters, “I don’t believe that at this time there is a way that they [the PSB] are going to force them to do so.”