Saint John energy questions smart meters as NB Power pushes for tech

As NB Power proceeds with its $92 million application to acquire and deploy smart meters and other advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) throughout New Brunswick, Saint John Energy is expressing uncertainty about expanding its use of the same technology.

"We have not come to a definitive position on where we go in the future," said Jeffrey Garrett, Saint John Energy's manager of compliance, regulatory and commercial affairs   

Saint John Energy is New Brunswick's second largest electric utility and like NB Power is in the process of developing a "smart grid"  to modernize its services. But it is not convinced yet it needs the additional expense of smart meters to make that modernization effective.

"There are certain aspects of smart grid that in and of themselves may or may not require AMI," said Garrett.

"Some people would argue that AMI makes it better and other people would argue you can get certain types of information — not all, not metering data — but you can get other data through other devices and sensors." 

Smart tech

AMI is a collection of physical and digital upgrades to the electrical grid, including the installation of smart meters that allows two-way communication between customer meters and a parent electrical utility.

NB Power has said it allows numerous pricing, service and load shifting innovations that it needs to properly modernize its delivery of electricity to customers.

"Installation of smart meters is essential to a smarter grid,"   the utility argues on its website.

But Saint John Energy's plans for a smarter grid do not include smart meters yet, even though the utility has extensive experience with the devices.

Robert Jones/CBC

Saint John Energy was an early adopter of smart meters and since 2006 has installed more than 9,000 of the units in the city, covering about one-quarter of its customer base.

Still, it is holding back on expanding its use of them until the Energy and Utilities Board gives more direction on future pricing of electricity in New Brunswick.

At some point next year the EUB is expected to hold a "rate design" hearing, at which it could decide to implement major changes in electricity pricing — like different power rates at different times of the day — that would require smart meters.

But it also may implement no changes or minor changes — like seasonal rates — that would not require smart meters to implement.

"The decision to move to or roll out any additional AMI will depend on how we see rates changing here in the province as we go forward," said Garrett.

"If New Brunswick as a whole began moving toward rate structures that required an AMI metering system and there were clearly demonstrated benefits to moving in that direction, then obviously we would want to afford our customers the same types of benefits."

A step back

Last year, Saint John Energy appeared to be more closely aligned with NB Power's plans and suggested it would likely upgrade to smart meters across its entire system if NB Power won permission to do the same.

"We support the rollout of AMI. We think it's a fundamental basis for some of the smart initiatives that we can all do in the future,"  former Saint John Energy vice-president Marta Kelly said in February 2018. 

For a time Saint John Energy joined a consortium of utilities led by NB Power which had negotiated a bulk purchase deal with a leading smart meter supplier, but eventually dropped out.

Robert Jones/CBC

Garret says Saint John Energy's position that it can implement an effective smart grid without smart meters — depending on how complex power rates become — does not say anything about the merits of NB Power's own application to acquire the meters.

"Saint John Energy and NB Power are different utilities," said Garrett.

"There are some aspects of the smart grid that stand on their own. They don't require AMI in order to make them function. Some would work better and might give you better information about your smart grid if you have AMI but not all technologies you would deploy would require an AMI system."