'Time marches on': Maritime Electric CEO explains soaring costs for smart meter program

Maritime Electric is navigating in a world of rapidly changing technology, says CEO Jason Roberts. (CBC - image credit)
Maritime Electric is navigating in a world of rapidly changing technology, says CEO Jason Roberts. (CBC - image credit)

Maritime Electric, P.E.I.'s main utility, has re-submitted an application to the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission to convert its customers over to smart meters, explaining why the estimated cost of the program has risen almost $20 million.

Implementing the program would increase rates by about three per cent by 2027, Maritime Electric's submission to the Island's utility regulator says.

Maritime Electric's first application to IRAC, submitted in November 2022, estimated the cost of installing smart meters across the province's electrical system would be about $48 million. In response to questions from IRAC late last year, the utility told the regulator that cost had jumped. The current estimate is $67 million.

"Time marches on," Maritime Electric CEO Jason Roberts said in an interview with CBC News: Compass this week.

Smart meters could change the way Islanders use electricity. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

"[A] transition from what's called an on-premise type solution — so having the software in our offices — to a cloud-based system, which is where the industry is moving towards, meant that the costs were starting to move up."

In addition, he said, the initial estimate was based on high-level estimates from consultants, and the new estimate is based on more direct input from suppliers.

In a letter ordering the utility to resubmit the application, IRAC criticized Maritime Electric for waiting to inform the regulator about cost increases. It also raised concerns about how robust a cloud-based system would be during a catastrophic weather event such as post-tropical storm Fiona, which hit the Island in September 2022.

Taking control of your power bill

As currently proposed, the smart meter program would see rates go up, but Roberts noted that smart meters will also provide the chance for customers to change their behaviour to lower their bills.

With smart meters, customers will be charged less for using electricity in off-peak times. Shifting when you use electricity, perhaps by setting appliances like dishwashers and clothes dryers on a timer to run overnight, would save money.

Part of the project will involve replacing the utility's customer information systems. The current system is almost 40 years old. A new system would let the utility direct individual customers on how to save energy.

"[We will be] able to communicate with you more frequently, more regularly about your energy usage," said Roberts.

"It's about us being able to say to you, 'Hey, wait a second now. There's something happening. You may not be home, it's the middle of the day, but there's something running in your house that's driving your consumption up.' So you have the ability to think about or look at what that might be."

While the three per cent rate increase would typically increase a residential bill by about $43 a year, some customers with smart meters will be able to take action to make their bills lower than they have been, he said.

Deadline next spring

The company resubmitted its application in April, and it remains under review.

Maritime Electric faces a deadline for getting this project started. The proposal began with an application to the federal government for support, and Ottawa stepped up with $19 million.

That funding agreement expires March 31, 2025, however.