One of British Columbia’s biggest underground industries could find itself short-circuited by a BC Hydro technology upgrade.
Hydro is moving ahead with a plan to replace mechanical electricity meters with smart meters across the province that are expected to make it a lot tougher for indoor marijuana growers to conceal their operations.
Smart meters represent the first major upgrade on conventional analog electricity meters in a half century. Hydro last month issued a request for proposals for companies to bid on installation of new, digital meters as well as the accompanying hardware and software, to serve all of its customers by 2012.
The principal benefit of the upgrade is to allow Hydro to better manage its electrical grid.
For example, Hydro will receive instantaneous reports of blackouts rather than waiting for customers to phone them with the information.
However, Hydro is touting detection of electricity theft as a significant side benefit for its customers.
Electricity theft was estimated in 2006 to cost Hydro $30 million per year — which would work out to at least $40 million with today’s two-tier electricity rate — equivalent to a one-per-cent rate hike.
“At the market value of [purchasing]new energy supply, the cost to our legitimate customers would be significantly more — even if the total quantity of gigawatt hours stolen has not increased since 2006,” said Cindy Verschoor, Hydro smart meter program communications leader, in an e-mail.
“The smart metering and infrastructure program will help to identify theft where and when it is occurring and mitigate impacts on legitimate ratepayers.”
Illicit marijuana production in B.C. has been estimated to have an annual retail value of between $4 billion and $5 billion.
Conventional wisdom holds that residential-based grow operators have either tampered with their existing meters or rewired nearby distribution power lines in order to mask the large volume of power they need to run the lights that serve their indoor nurseries.
In a recent interview, a senior executive with a B.C.-based company that has already installed millions of smart meters for utilities around North America said that its workers immediately detect illegal electricity consumption when they attach the new meters to the outside of homes and commercial businesses.
It’s a side-effect of the installation, Corix Utilities (U.S.) vice-president and general manager Kevin Meagher said.
“We are verifying first of all . . . is the system is safe? Is that little box on the side of your house safe? Is it grounded? Are there the right voltages based on the [customers’] records and so forth? That’s all part of the installation process. We are testing all of that,” Meagher said.
“How we find these [illegal]things is that we will get a backfeed that tells me there is power coming from somewhere else on this premise through the system. That’s usually an indicator that there is a grow house or something else on it.”
Hydro won’t divulge specific details on how smart meters will detect theft, but Verschoor acknowledged that the Crown corporation expects that tampered meters will be discovered by contractors during the initial installation process.
“While evidence of electricity theft will be reported to BC Hydro, the smart meter installers are not going to be conducting investigations or intruding on customer privacy,” Verschoor said.
“In general, theft detection will involve accurately measuring how much electricity is going into an area [such as a neighbourhood]and that data will be compared to metered consumption from customers in the area.
“This is akin to a retail chain comparing how much inventory is delivered to each store by how many units are sold at the cash registers in that store.”
She added that the new system will give Hydro better “visibility” of its grid.
“We can determine sources of energy loss from a variety of causes, including theft.”
Discussion board participants on cannabis culture sites across the English-speaking world have been expressing a degree of paranoia about the new technology, with similar meter installations proceeding in many countries.
Advocates of legalizing marijuana, meanwhile, think the grow operations most likely to be detected by the new meter technology are family enterprises.
“Prohibition breeds creativity for getting around obstacles and law enforcement, so there will be ways for large-scale growers to go undetected,” Jodie Emery said in an e-mail.
Emery’s husband is Marc Emery, an outspoken advocate of pot legalization now serving five years in a U.S. penitentiary for a mail order business that shipped marijuana seeds from Canada to the United States.
“They can just get generators, or buy entire gas stations (as we’ve seen done in the past), or use new LED lighting technology, or grow smaller crops in more locations, which actually spreads the problem out and makes it harder to detect,” Jodie Emery said.
“The most dangerous aspect of the smart meter program is that it means small-scale, mom-and-pop indoor gardens will be more likely to be shut down, whereas organized crime can afford the techniques and technology to avoid detection (in the ways I outlined above). So it puts more of the cannabis market into the hands of gangs, and out of small-scale personal gardeners.
“No matter what BC Hydro does with smart meters, grow ops will never go away unless cannabis prohibition ends.”
– Article from Vancouver Sun.