Three cheers for Smart Meters…sort of.

This week I hosted a round table in the House of Commons on smart meters and a ‘smart grid’.  The main sponsors of the event were General Electric who have, by the way, installed a very useful ‘Smart Grid’ demonstration centre at Bracknell, which is well worth a visit, if anyone ever invites you.

(n.b. If Bracknell is too far to go for your smart grid fix GE also have an excellent interactive Smart Grid demo on their website.)

The long and the short of it is that we are all going to have ‘smart meters’ installed in our homes within the next seven years. The coalition has brought forward the completion date for the roll out from around 2020 to 2017 which of course means smart meters all round, job done, crack open the Moet (or let’s say the fizzy water, as we are in the new age of austerity).

In fact speeding up the roll-out is, of course, a good thing if it can be done, but the thinking behind the acceleration has been based on a fairly undifferentiated view of the benefit of smart meters, i.e. they will do everything that dumb meters don’t do and we can have them more quickly than was previously thought, which is not necessarily accurate.

It is true that the benefits of smart meters installed everywhere are considerable; customers will know in real time what energy they are consuming and will never have to suffer ‘estimated reading’ billings again, they should serve as efficient export meters for renewable installations, they will give energy companies ‘real time’ readings of supply and hence enable them to balance supply and demand much more effectively, and so on.  (There is a small side point here, incidentally, that if smart meters really can provide market data in real time, energy suppliers will be able to save a fortune in bidding for slots and will not get fined or have to sell off surplus at a low rate.  This begs the question of whether the cost should be recovered from customers bills as is proposed.)

The installation of smart meters has been put into the hands of energy companies. A massive roll-out is planned where in principle each street will be visited by up to six suppliers installing meters that we hope will be interoperable. This is perhaps a market-efficient way of getting it done, but quite a risk in terms of the outcome of installation as far as the customer is concerned.  The fact remains that meters are meters are meters: they read a variety of things, from taxi fares to water flow to electricity supply, and perhaps an installation by a ‘meter agency’ or similar, selling data to suppliers would be more effective for guaranteed interoperability and customer security, but I think that pass has been sold some time ago.

Right now, the challenges are to ensure that what is installed really can switch effectively between suppliers, that data really is secure to the customer, and that we really can develop a comms system that includes all the recipients of smart meter installation.

On this latter point, we are, it seems, likely to be going down a communications protocol route for smart meters based on SMS mobile phone communications – and anyone who has tried to get signal on the train between Basingstoke and Woking will know that it’s not the best coverage – even in the densely populated south of England.  More extensive consideration of ‘mesh’ radio technologies might be a better idea.

So we’ve got just a few years to get all this right and put them all into people’s homes.  I hope it all goes well! Oh and by the way, smart meters are really only as effective as the grid they’re giving information on.  Smartening the grid in a less than comparable time period renders smart meters only partially effective until that happens.  But that’s a thought for another occasion…..



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