Kelly Egan / Ottawa Citizen  – January 12, 2016   Photo : Darcy Cheek /Brockville Recorder and Times

Hydro One has taken a new approach to pesky smart meters that refuse to send a reliable signal about electricity consumption in rural Ontario.

Give up on them.

The utility, which was ordered by its provincial masters to install the devices, admits it has decided to manually read roughly 36,000 meters instead of counting on the wireless technology.

“Astonishing,” was the reaction from Lanark-area MPP Randy Hillier, who has been deluged with complaints about Hydro One billing and smart-meter suspicions.

“I’ve been banging my head against the wall for the last five years, saying we’ve got problems with smart meters in rural Ontario.” Since first being elected in 2007, no single issue has attracted as much attention in his riding, he said.

One of the main complaints, Hillier explained, is that the terrain in rural Ontario is such that the wireless meters — which send out a continuous signal to permit time-of-use billing — frequently fail. Turns out it’s absolutely true.

“The evidence has been in front of us for a long time. It doesn’t work, it hasn’t worked and now (there’s) an admission that it will never work.”

His conclusion is based on a letter from Hydro One being sent to a number of residents outside Perth, including a handful on Barries Sideroad, about five kilometres north of town.

One was dated Dec. 25, which caused Hillier to wonder whether the utility was now employing elves or festive-resistant computers. But that’s another story.

Here’s a portion: “Over the last few years, we’ve learned that it isn’t possible to economically connect all meters to the smart meter network. Nor is it possible to make all meters communicate reliably enough to issue regular time-of-use (TOU) bills based on actual meter readings.”

So the customer was told Hydro One was moving her to the so-called “two-tier” system, which charges a lower rate for the first block of kilowatt hours, then a higher amount above this threshold. The meter will be read quarterly and bills in between will be based on estimates.

Hillier is pleased with the change. Malfunctioning meters were among several issues that caused a customer relations nightmare for Hydro One in 2013 and 2014.

When Hydro moved to a new billing system, it was buried with complaints, numbering in the tens of thousands. Some customers were double and tripled bills; some had no bills for months; others were comically billed millions in overcharges.

When Ontario’s ombudsman stepped in, the office of André Marin was flooded with more than 10,000 complaints. Hydro admitted its errors, even sending about a million letters of apology to its customers.

The introduction of smart meters to Ontario, mandated by the Liberal government at a cost of about $2 billion, created peak and off-peak rates that were to spark a conservation drive across the province. The results have been disappointing.

“So much for trying to get people to use off-peak mostly!” wrote Barries Sideroad resident Gregory Jaques, who also received a Hydro letter about manually readings. “They basically admit that they cannot make the smart meters work outside of populated areas.”

To make things more curious, Jaques reports that Hydro only weeks ago installed a repeater on an area pole to boost the signal from the meters. It was working fine, he said, when Hydro announced it was abandoning the plan.

“It’s a waste of money, from someone’s point of view.”

Hydro One, meanwhile, says it knew it had a problem on its hands in rural areas and successfully applied to the Ontario Energy Board to switch from TOU meters to manual readings. The board approved the change in March 2015.

Some rural customers were baffled by the technological problems. It was especially laughable when Hydro responded that leafy trees could interrupt the signal, as though the presence of trees in the countryside came as a surprise. At the height of the crisis, Hydro said about six per cent of its one million customers were having “billing issues.”

Hillier only shakes his head at the countless hours customers have spent with Hydro’s call centre, the frustration of trying to be heard and the repeated errors that, in some cases, have threatened financial ruin on small businesses. And, now, to pull the plug on the meters altogether?

“Anytime a government agency doesn’t cause stress or anxiety is an improvement.”

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896 or email [email protected]