SaskPower's sorry smart meter saga


By the standards of costly Crown corporation screw-ups, the Saskatchewan Party will argue that the smart meter fiasco isn't the biggest.

Government supporters will be quick to point out that the NDP/Sask Water Spudco fiasco that cost taxpayers some $38 million with nothing to show for a return was far more costly.

And they will be even more adamant now that SaskPower has reached an arrangement Sensus - the American manufacturer of the defective smart meters - on compensation.

In fact, both SaskPower and the Sask. Party are already spinning the notion that the deal reached recovers the entire $47-million cost. Their math is questionable.

Under the agreement reached with Sensus, SaskPower gets a $24-million cash refund for the meters already installed or bought. Our Crown electrical utility also gets an $18-million credit that will go toward any future purchase of Sensus meters and $5 million in research and development of a new "next generation meter".

That may add up to the recall cost, but it all hinges on doing more business with Sensus and doesn't include the $30-million cost to install and uninstall after 10 of the units caught on fire.

And then there is the legitimate question as to why any compensation agreement should have had to have been negotiated at all. Shouldn't most of this have been built right into the purchase agreement contract with Sensus?

It sure was in other agreements Sensus signed with utilities much, much smaller.

For example, the tiny Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB) _ a community-owned utility serving 86,000 homes in Eugene, Oregon - seemed to do a far better job of its homework before getting into its smart meter contract with Sensus.

In a 2013 memo to its customers/shareholders publicly released and available on the internet, EWEB outlines how it awarded the smart meter contract to Sensus over 13 other applicants event though it had misgivings that "Sensus has not been in the electric meter manufacturing business as long as other proposers, and appears to be encountering growing pains associated with being new to this market."

But according to the public memo, the $26-million contract with EWEB has a $2.3-million "hold-back" provision "to be paid only when the system is fully installed, an "off-ramp" that is "in direct response to various challenges incurred by other utilities", "milestone payments" to insure meters are working correctly and a "predefined Final Acceptance Criteria (FAC)" in the case of "unusually high rates of equipment failure" that would states "Sensus will repair, at their expense, any issues that arise that would cause the system to perform at less than the FAC criteria."

How a tiny local utility seemed to get all this writing beforehand when SaskPower appears to have had to negotiate a settlement is an interesting question. But a better question is how we can find out more about Sensus's contract in Eugene, Oregon than we can about SaskPower's own deal with Sensus here at home.

After months of asking for details on the decision-making process on the Sensus contract and the getting no real answers, the Regina Leader-Post applied through the province's Freedom of Information legislation for documents pertaining to SaskPower's negotiations with Sensus and the installers who put in the smart meters.

The newspaper was told it would cost $57.000 for that information. This from a public utility we own that claims it has "offered as much information as is possible."

Of course, the Sask. Party can rightly argue that SaskPower was equally mum during NDP about the Channel Lake fiasco and its attempt to buy the Guyana Electrical Company during the NDP days. This is true.

But Sask. Party supporters might also recall that heads rolled at both SaskPower and SaskWater for those past messes.

And they should also remember that we own SaskPower and it's accountable to us.

Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.

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