Energy Minister Bill Bennett said Thursday public concerns about the government's ongoing $1-billion smart meter installation program have prompted the province to offer alternatives to the once mandatory program, but it will cost extra cash.
Bennett said he's responding to public pressure about the meters that 60,000 people have refused to have installed over concerns that include the possible dangers of high-frequency radio waves, which help transmit data to BC Hydro computers and allow consumers to monitor their energy use on a daily basis.
"People who want to opt out can," he said. "They will not be forced to have a smart meter, but they are going to have to pay the costs."
Bennett said people could have a digital meter installed with the radio transmission turned off or keep the old analog meter, but both options involve more costs because they have to be monitored and maintained by hydro workers, while the smart meters are less labour intensive.
He said the extra fees associated with radio-off or analog-meter have yet to be established, but estimated they will start at about $20 extra a month, plus other maintenance fees. Bennett said the B.C. Utilities Commission will review the rates.
Bennett said the government's decision to provide installation options does not represent a back-down on its earlier tough stand to force smart meters on all British Columbians.
"Bottom line here is we are absolutely committed to having a smart grid and smart meters are a big part of that, obviously," he said. "We are well on our way. We have 96 per cent of British Columbians with smart meters today."
Bennett said smart meters represent an upgrade of the province's electricity grid that aims to lower costs, reduce theft, encourage conservation and can automatically detect outages.
Opposition New Democrat energy critic John Horgan said the Liberals hard-line approach to forcing smart meters on British Columbians has failed.
"We had a systematic campaign for two-and-a-half years saying every home must have a meter and now they are admitting the obvious that it's just not true," he said. "There are people who legitimately are anxious about the technology and we should have respected that from the start."
Smart meter opponents called Bennett's move a political delay tactic that will instead eventually cover the province in them.
Citizens for Safe Technology spokeswoman Una St. Clair said the fine print in Bennett's announcement indicates that smart meters will eventually replace worn-out analog meters.
"We believe this is a ploy only to get the remaining smart meter hold-outs to take a smart meter of some kind," she said. "This is not a free and open choice. Sooner or later you are going to get a smart meter."
Bennett said 1.8 million smart meters have already been installed on B.C. properties.