NB Power's plans to shape public opinion and mold customer behaviour around its smart meter plan, including the use of "behavioural science" to shift consumption patterns once the meters are installed, came under scrutiny at the utility's ongoing rate hearing Wednesday.
Despite some opposition at the hearing itself, NB Power representatives claim they are not expecting much public resistance to the installation of smart meters in the province but are still preparing an extensive public relations campaign in support of the devices.
"NB Power is a trusted provider of customers in the province. Meters get exchanged all the time so we're not anticipating a reaction that is any different when an NB Power employee comes in now to change out a meter," said Jacqueline Lemmerhirt, an NB Power consultant from Maine hired to help plan for smart meters.
Nevertheless, public acceptance of smart meters is critical to the utility achieving its goal of near universal adoption of the devices, so it is planning a variety of campaigns in support of the meters to meet whatever suspicion or hostility might be encountered.
"There will be education on health if we get questions on that. There will be education on safety if we get questions on that so all aspects of the program will be prepared to educate and respond to the customers concerns," said Lemmerhirt.
"If there's any need to slow down, to do further education, we'll definitely take that time.
"NB Power wants to do this right and wants to have it be successful and accepted by the customers."
But efforts by NB Power to shape the behaviour of customers go beyond winning support for the meters themselves.
James Douglas, an Ontario consultant also working on the smart meter project, was questioned by J.D. Irving lawyer Christopher Stewart about the use of "behavioural psychology" to get customers to act on the extensive data smart meters will provide to reduce their consumption.
"There is major investments in our industry around behavioural science on how we actually frame the information for customers so they get value from it," said Douglas.
"NB Power — the vendors they work with — engage with behavioural scientists to make sure that how the program is designed and how they're communicating with the public is done in a way that is meaningful, is done in a way they can understand."
"I take it no one at NB Power has any particular expertise in behavioural psychology," asked Stewart, who was told the utility's customer service department in fact does "quite a bit of research" to understand the issue.
Smart meter opponents, including environmentalist Daniel LeBlanc, expressed concern earlier in the hearing about the devices and suggested rural residents would be suspicious of them.
Publicly, the utility doubts that is true but acknowledged Wednesday it will be doing whatever it can to make sure opposition does not take root.
"The success of the project depends on NB Power's customers accepting the technology is that correct?" asked public intervenor Heather Black.
"We agree the project is dependent on on customers understanding the benefit that a (Smart) metre will bring," acknowledged Lynn Arsenault, NB Power's vice-president of customer service.
"If it's using the home shows, if it's using meetings, we'll leverage areas within the communities to best communicate and understand where the customers concerns are."