Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Smart Metering, where are we going ?

If you are reading this, it's probably because you have heard of smart metering, you may even have one - or at least one that had the phrase "smart meter" somewhere in it's description. But, for those of you who have never heard the term or are unsure of what it is, here is a brief explanation, followed by some thoughts on where we are going with this concept.

I am sure most of us have at some point had to find the flash-light (or touch) and climb under the staircase or under the sink to find the gas or electric meter to take a reading. Many have probably had a visit from a meter reader who came into the home to take readings. Smart meters don't need humans to read them, they automatically send their readings to a central computer. They may do this at varying frequencies - more advanced meters (although, they may cease to be called meters) may conceptually have the ability to control household appliances.

Why is this a good idea ? Firstly, and unfortunately for the meter readers we will no longer need humans to take the readings. Energy companies will have real-time information on the exact usage of each and every customer. This is not necessarily financially beneficial to the energy companies as the old inefficient systems may have benefited them (note MAY HAVE). In theory the energy companies may now have a more accurate record of a customers energy usage. As energy prices continue to increase around the world over the coming years, this more accurate record of usage will become important both for the energy company and the consumer. As prices soar the energy companies will begin offering ever more tethered tariff plans - this will help them in balancing the load on their network. Smart metering will enable the energy companies to offer, for example, 1/2 price sales between say 2am and 4am. At a later date consumer devices will become more advanced to take advantage of these cheaper energy periods. Since smart meters report the quasi-realtime usage of a customer over some telecommunications network, it is also quite probable that consumer devices that control the house hold devices will become integrated with these telecommunication networks (e.g using the mobile phone to control the household appliance usage). A further consequence is that households may find ways of generating thier own energy (solar panels or wind turbines on the roof) - smart meters will aid the process whereby the access of this energy is sold back into the energy grid.

The role out of smart meters is the first step in controlling the domestic and industrial energy usage. It also gives the energy companies much more detailed information about the patterns of usage - which will allow them to provision for such usage more accurately. This may mean that they would need less margin for error and be able to supply energy more efficiently. They will also integrate the meters with their customer services and fault finding - enabling them to diagnose problems and faults more efficiently. On the downside, our individual usage will become public record (or at least will be recorded somewhere). Some computer server will know when we turn on our washing machine, when we cook lunch etc. However, the ultimate efficiencies should more than offset the publication of this information.

There is still some significant work to be done in this industry. At present there are few standards (how the meters send their data, what data they send, what data is recorded and how this data is used - amongst other things). As governments and regulators begin to mandate the efficiency requrements (basically mandate smart metering), standards will at some point begin to converge (it is a question of time). In the future, we can expect to see "metering" devices in large networks which communicate with each other are remotely controllable and ultimately become truly smart in the way they control our energy usage.

For those interested in the UK market and what the regulator is mandating please visit this link

Interesting piece on consumer backlash against smart metering

Andy Standford-Clarke and his Automated Tweeting Home