Amid all of the debate about whether New Brunswick should be permitted to roll out smart meters for its customers, one statistic stands out: eight in 10 Canadians already have smart meters.

There are good reasons for the widespread adoption: smart meters empower customers, strengthen the reliability of power grids and lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions, among other advantages.

Because smart metering would be new for the province, it seems to some like novel technology, when in fact NB Power is trying to catch up to technology that has been in place in other areas of the country for more than a decade.

Much of the debate in New Brunswick focuses on the costs NB Power would face in its plan to roll out smart meters for its customers. That focus is obscuring other vital issues – including the costs to this province of not adopting them. Indeed, New Brunswick will find itself at a competitive disadvantage by failing to adopt this widely accepted technology.

A critical investment

Yes, there is an upfront cost to moving forward with smart meters. But we are concerned that not enough attention has been paid to the costs to the province of not proceeding. Smart meters and the benefits they bring are a critical investment for New Brunswick’s energy future. 

During ongoing Energy and Utility Board hearings into whether NB Power should be allowed to implement smart metering, it emerged that 80 per cent of Canadians are already using smart meters.

Those customers already have access to real-time data. They have the ability to monitor their electricity consumption patterns, and take action to save power – and money – if they wish. People want to reduce their carbon footprint, but they need the right information to help them make efficient decisions on energy use.

Smart metering alerts utilities to power outages to allow crews to find and fix problems faster and more effectively manage disruptions from storms. It enables environmental benefits by helping to balance and shift energy use to reduce peak energy demands that drive up carbon emissions. It accelerates energy efficiency initiatives and the integration of non-emitting energy sources. It affects NB Power’s potential to more effectively manage emerging distributed generation in the future.

An essential foundation

Smart metering supports enhanced grid resilience and reliability, peak load adjustments and is an essential foundation for the emerging smart grid vision for this province.

What if New Brunswick electricity users do not have access to advanced metering and the information it makes available? Can we achieve our environmental goals of the future without having access to detailed electricity data?

Remember the era when NBTel powered the shift from analog to digital telecommunications, ushering in widespread use of fibre optics? Did it cost money? Yes. But it was transformational.

The digital age has become a way of life – can you imagine if we stuck it out with rotary dial phones? Moreover, where would New Brunswick, or Canada, be today if NBTel had not pioneered the adoption of fibre-optic technology that stands as the backbone for high-speed Internet?

Global technology standard

Smart metering – also known as advanced metering infrastructure – has emerged over the past decade as a North American and global technology standard. New Brunswick can not remain unconnected forever.

To continue to postpone this investment will postpone its benefits.

An important question has not been fully answered during the current energy board hearings – what happens if NB Power is unsuccessful?

NB Power customers will continue to be at a disadvantage compared to most other Canadians who have access to important tools to manage energy consumption. NB Power will lack the ability to optimize its grid as it deals with distributed generation, variable renewable energy and emerging disruptive energy technologies. The utility and others will be at a significant competitive disadvantage with respect to developing smart grid technologies and applications here in New Brunswick.

We have the opportunity to take a decisive step towards building a modern grid rather than fall behind the rest of Canada and, indeed, North America.

Quite frankly, we are talking about catching up to what has become the overwhelming standard in this country. Each day we delay this step, we fall further behind.

Colleen d’Entremont is President of the Atlantica Centre for Energy, a think tank examining energy issues in the region. This commentary is adapted from the centre’s submission to the New Brunswick Energy and Utilities Board hearings into smart metering.