Needed: Smarter Thinking on Smart Meters

In case you missed it because you were quite reasonably sitting on a beach, you should know that , as of the middle of August, a “great leap forward” occurred towards the roll out of Britain’s £12bn plan to have over 50 million buildings equipped with smart meters by 2020.

Contractors have been chosen by DECC for the huge tasks of managing all the data and organising the communications networks that will make it all happen. So all they’ve got to do now is, as Star Trek’s commander Pickard always intoned halfway through an episode, is “make it so”.

But what, we might ask ourselves, now that the process is underway will “making it so” consist of? There is a widespread feeling that, with the design and arrangements the proposed roll out now becoming more set in stone, we will probably) get a reasonably complete roll out, but mainly one that allows energy companies to save on meter inspections, improve their balancing arrangements and possibly offer more effective tariffs. Consumers will be able to see who has switched the kettle on or is drying their hair through the use of display units, but I’m not sure the value we will obtain as consumers will demonstrably outweigh the bills we will be paying to undertake the roll out. Not to put too fine a point on it, it will be consumers who will foot the entire bill for the installation of the meters, and I think, on present arrangements, it will be utilities which will reap most of the benefit.

This doesn’t put me in the smart meter-sceptic camp. On the contrary, I’m convinced of the benefits of an all-inclusive smart meter system, provided it really works, provided it is good value, and provided it really can do all the things needed to make our energy delivery systems far smarter, more responsive, and overall much more energy efficient in the long term. We will certainly need to be able to manage systems far more effectively and with far less redundancy in them, if we are to succeed in managing the very different arrangements for balancing and supply that a system predominantly driven by renewable energy will require.

I’m not convinced though, that on the present byzantine arrangements, a meter roll out will achieve any of these basic requirements. We do need, for example, far better and smarter district network grid arrangements to do all the things we want smart meters to do, and at present smart meter roll out is completely detached from smart grid development: we could easily have by 2020, some very smart meters trying to tell some not so smart grid configurations what to do on a variety of measures, with the ability actually to do them simply not being there.

Indeed, the preferred contractor awards this summer underline this complexity. There will be data services providers, communication services providers, and a smart code energy administrator. Simultaneously OFGEM has announced its requirements on the roll out plans and milestones that it will oversee energy companies on: and all that derives, in the main from the initial, difficult to fathom decision that the whole process of roll out and installation should be in the hands of the energy suppliers and not the networks at the end of which the smart meters will sit. So we will be lumbered with highly complex arrangements seeking to enforce some sort of communication between multiple energy suppliers, who will be simultaneously running up and down the same streets as each other installing the meters for their particular customers, and the separate agencies trying to make everything interconnect, ensure interoperability of meters and the district networks that actually organise the delivery of the power to (and increasingly, with distributed energy installations, from) wherever smart meters are sited.

Now that we can see the roll out in the round, it really doesn’t seem to make much sense, and certainly will not build in incentives to deliver smart grids alongside smart meter installation.

The dilemma, from a longer term point of view, will be whether to just let it all run on because at least, well, we’ll get something in place providing we can reasonably bear down on costs, or to take at least some of the roll out arrangements apart and put them together again in a coherent way: for example, through the introduction of a regional roll out based on District Network operators areas of responsibility and the packaging of the resultant data for purchase and use by utilities.

The fact that there is yet another redesign of what a compatible meter is going to look like and that, with the present roll out timetable, we are probably going to have to rip a number of meters out and replace them or delay roll out until any new specification is ready may give some breathing space to think again about where we seem to have got ourselves. But unfortunately there is not much time, and rather a lot at stake.

I think Government will probably just shrug and whistle loudly, and let things run. But it needn’t be like that: I think we need collectively to take a deep breath, consider carefully again what we ultimately want from a universal smart meter regime, and only then actually “make it so”.

This article was first published in Business Green.