Cloverdale’s Vern Keller had his doubts when BC Hydro contractors installed the new smart meter in his home 10 months ago, but he didn’t raise a ruckus.

He didn’t put up a sign or build a cage around his old meter, like some smart meter resisters.

Maybe he should have.

The local retiree and Legion member opened his mail this week to find his power bill for the two months ending Jan. 20 was a staggering $684 – more than double the $329 he paid for roughly the same period a year ago, during a colder winter.

“I might have used a little bit more, but not twice the amount, come on,” Keller said.

“Double the amount plus $20 for the same dates over last year? Gee whiz, I’m telling you. I don’t own the power company, I’m just using some.”

Now that it appears the controversial wireless smart meters won’t be forced on the last holdouts until after the May provincial election, if ever, Keller wishes he, too, had said no when he had the chance.

“I didn’t want one, but I didn’t put a sign up in front that I didn’t want one,” he said.

Keller called Hydro asking for his old analog meter back.

“They said that’s not going to happen,” he said. “No way. There’s nothing I can do.”

Keller spoke out after Energy Minister Rich Coleman said last week smart meters won’t be forced into homes over the next few months.

He sought to calm confusion about the government policy, denying reports the province had reversed itself and will let objectors permanently opt out.

“We’re going back to talk to our customers,” Coleman said. “We’ll not force any customer to take a meter.”

He predicts most smart meter opponents will ultimately agree to take them after they talk to BC Hydro reps.

But exactly what will happen to holdouts who resist to the end is unclear.

Coleman said the next steps would be decided after “some re-education” and an effort to work with objectors in a “respectful” way.

“(We’ll) see how many at the end of maybe two or three months we have left and then we’ll have a conversation about where we go from here,” he said.

Asked whether the meters will ultimately be mandatory, Coleman said: “I’m not going to make that decision until I see the results of the next couple of months.”

BC Hydro officials also said they’d take more time to work through customer concerns and won’t install meters without permission in households who oppose them.

But the controversy ramped up a level last week when South Surrey-White Rock Liberal  MLA Gordon Hogg claimed Coleman had agreed smart meter objectors would get a permanent opt-out.

“He actually contacted me and apologized,” Coleman said, adding Hogg’s office misinterpreted his position.

Reached later, Hogg insisted his office checked with Coleman’s first and that he does not believe he was wrong.

NDP energy critic John Horgan accused the Liberals of making a muddled attempt to neutralize the contentious issue ahead of the provincial election.

“They want to reduce the amount of frustration they find in communities right across B.C.,” Horgan said.

He said the attempt to punt the issue to after the May 14 vote has only confused the public, adding MLA offices have been “swamped by concerned citizens who want answers.”

For months, wireless meter opponents have shared strategies online to thwart Hydro contractors from switching their old meters.

But Hydro officials said those who didn’t take such steps and now have a smart meter won’t be allowed to switch back – no matter how the province ultimately handles the final holdouts.

“We can’t remove a smart meter once it has been installed because they are now standard operating equipment like utility poles and power lines,” BC Hydro spokesman Greg Alexis said in an emailed statement. “Also, the old meters are being recycled and are no longer available.”

Hydro officials have so far refused to disclose what proportion of smart meters are required in a given area for the new smart grid to function effectively.

More than 1.74 million smart meters have so far been installed province-wide, pointing to a penetration rate of at least 93 per cent, with a combination of holdouts and accepting customers still to go.

Horgan said an NDP government would ask the B.C. Utilities Commission to advise on how best to deal with households who refuse the new meters.

“What we need now is not government or a political party telling the public why this is a good or bad idea, but an independent third party.”

That’s what the province should have done from the outset, Horgan said, but added B.C.’s Clean Energy Act exempted the smart meter program from regulatory scrutiny.

“They’re reaping what they sowed,” he said. “This $1-billion program was jammed through for reasons unknown to me.”

Horgan said he expects the BCUC would consider a range of options for holdout households.

He said one might be to subsidize the cost of placing a wireless meter at the edge of the property and running a wire to it, potentially allowing the customer to pay their share over the long term through small monthly payments.

Horgan said he has no personal concerns about smart meter safety but said the government’s approach of dismissing opponents as “just irrational people doesn’t diminish the anxiety they’re feeling.”

Some objectors have also refused to accept smart meters because they believe BC Hydro will eventually implement time-of-use pricing that charges more at peak periods. Coleman previously ruled that out.

– With files from Jeff Nagel, Black Press