Editor’s note: Following is a guest commentary by Tom Fryers, commercial director of Sentec, which provides products and consulting services for smart metering and energy management.
Smart metering is a sexy topic in the energy world, with nearly all Western economies considering plans for large deployments. It can be used in many different ways but normally there is more than one goal behind a smart metering deployment:
- In the US, smart metering was, for the most part, driven by the desire to reduce the costs associated with manual meter reading, to reduce peak load and to enhance security of supply.
- In Italy, one of the key drivers was tackling energy theft and the cost of managing meters.
- In Ontario, it was peak shaving and the move toward time-of-use pricing.
But if smart meters have the potential to address a number of issues, that potential can only be realised by flexible system design and deployment, avoiding excessive rigidity. In this case, one size most certainly does not fit all. We fear that the UK’s current plans for a nationwide rollout of smart meters may well be taking us down the wrong path by imposing standard solutions on the wrong part of the system.
For example, the various smart metering schemes deployed in the US show, categorically, that there is no universally applicable solution. The most cost-effective communication solution for a metropolitan area, for example, can prove to be far more expensive and far less effective in the sparsely populated rural heartlands.
Looking at the Italian system where the regulator mandated both the type of meter and the extra cost that can be charged, there has been little incentive to design a future-proofed system. And while the smart metering project certainly met its initial objectives, and easily exceeded pay-back, it now faces the possibility of a highly disruptive, wholesale replacement.
If the UK is to avoid similar problems, then we need to take into account the fact that current smart meters are the gateway to a number of future functions. They have the potential to transform the relationship between utility and customer in ways that we do not, as yet, fully understand.
The simple fact is that smart metering cannot be treated as a one-off implementation that will survive 20 years before old age takes its toll: the innovation cycle is much shorter than that. What’s more, energy displays are set to enter the fast-paced world of consumer electronics, where iPod users expect a brand new device every year. Any functionality that is aimed at consumers needs to tune into this kind of expectation, even if the features aimed at utilities have a much longer lifecycle.
Therefore, as we plan for the next generation of smart metering, we would be wise to learn the lessons from abroad rather than to blindly make the same mistakes again.