POLITICS

SaskPower CEO resigns after smart-meters report cites lack of safety priority

10/27/2014 12:48 EDT | Updated 12/27/2014 05:59 EST
REGINA - The head of Saskatchewan's Crown power company resigned Monday following a report into smart-meter fires that said customer safety wasn't enough of a priority.

Economy Minister Bill Boyd said SaskPower CEO Robert Watson "took responsibility for the problems experienced with this project."

"(He) felt it was time that there was new leadership at SaskPower," said Boyd, who added that Mike Marsh, vice-president of operations, will step into the job for the interim.

Last summer, the province ordered SaskPower to remove more than 100,000 smart meters that had already been installed in homes after at least eight of the devices caught fire in June and July.

Boyd said it was evident for some time that there were problems with the meters.

"There was not enough consideration given to customer safety, the program was rushed and there (were) warning signs that were overlooked. It was clear that there was no one that was in overall charge of the program," the minister said.

Watson won't be receiving severance pay, Boyd said.

Saskatchewan's Crown Investment Corp. was directed to do a review after the fires. The investigation results released Monday found that rain water and contaminants getting into the meters appeared to contribute to them failing.

"In various parts of the province, eight meters failed catastrophically, melting or burning and in some cases damaging the sides of houses," the report said. The failures were not related to "hot sockets" or installation issues, it said.

The report also said SaskPower failed to look at the possibility that the meters could short out and catch fire.

It said that the utility looked at 359 returns and found that 18 smart meters were burned and no longer operational. Three more had high temperature errors, while 107 had display problems and 67 showed error codes.

"The (Return Material Authorization) process involves meters that have had issues in the field, and includes the eight meters involved in the destructive failures," the review said. "The causes of these issues range from broken displays, over-voltage, communication issues, or simply the meters were dropped and no longer function properly."

Boyd said the government is taking the review's findings seriously and the Crown corporation will be directed to follow its recommendations. They include replacing all the meters that were provided by U.S. manufacturer Sensus. SaskPower is planning to have removal completed by March 15.

Watson announced in September that Sensus was refunding $24 million for all the smart meters the province purchased. That covered all devices that were installed and had to be removed, as well as those that hadn't been put in yet.

Watson said Sensus was also giving SaskPower $18 million in credit for new meters, and another $5 million was to go toward developing a device suited to the Saskatchewan climate.

NDP finance critic Trent Wotherspoon, in calling for Boyd's resignation during Monday's question period, said the minister has been part of the program's failures "every step of the way."

Boyd said the government was acting upon advice.

"In this case we weren't provided with any information that suggested there were problems with the meters," he said. The government did act as soon as issues were identified, he added.

"If there was information presented and we didn't act upon it, clearly there'd be a problem with that, and I would resign."

He acknowledged that the government approved the SaskPower program, but didn't go through the technical details or contracts.

Premier Brad Wall said calls for a ministerial resignation aren't warranted.

The Opposition is also asking for an independent investigation by the provincial auditor after what Wotherspoon called a "damning" report.

"This government simply didn't have the consideration of the safety of Saskatchewan people, which is appalling in and of itself," he said.

Wotherspoon also suggested problems with the meters were "concealed."

"They rejected looking into the examples in other jurisdictions — Alabama and Philadelphia — where there was meter failure going on with the very meters that this government was putting taxpayers on the hook to pay."

Wotherspoon said while the government claims to have recouped costs from the program, "millions of dollars (have been) wasted."

The problems in Saskatchewan prompted officials in Medicine Hat, Alta., to suspend installation of electricity smart meters in August. A spokesman for the city said there had been no reported problems.

In Ontario, smart meters have been linked to 23 reports to Ontario's fire marshal between 2011 and 2013, including 13 small fires. Karen Cormier, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Energy Board, has said that 36 of 77 utilities in Ontario use smart meters from Sensus, but none of them are the model used in Saskatchewan.

A smart meter records consumption of energy in small intervals and can relay the information electronically to a utilities company. It eliminates the need to estimate bills when a meter reader can't do an on-site check.