What’s so Smart about Smart Meters?

21/11/2009

There’s a lot of hype about so-called Smart Meters at the moment, with the UK Government declaring that every home in the UK will have one by 2020. That’s 50 million meters and a ten billion pound business just in the field of meter supply. (That ought to raise some taxes to offset our national debt!)

While that all seems a long, long time away, it’s not a long time when you consider that (as far as I can tell) no-one has defined what the meters will actually do or how they will do it. Before you read on, think for a moment about what you understand by the term Smart Meter. What is its function? What benefits will it give to YOU as a consumer?

Meters can potentially serve a number of purposes. Firstly, a meter measures the energy consumption so that the energy company can send you an accurate bill. With many of us choosing to get our energy from alternative suppliers estimated bills are all too frequent, so automated meter reading is an obvious benefit rather than just getting annual meter readings and a surprise large bill.  This function isn’t in my book a “Smart Meter”, it’s just plain automated meter reading.  This can be done by a van driving down the road and connecting wirelessly using a short range technology like Bluetooth, ZigBee, Z-Wave or EnOcean, or even using a long-range technology like GSM.  Although GSM requires line rental which is an additional cost, offsetting this against the need to drive a van around can make it viable, especially for more remote areas.

Now, Idaho have said that they are installing about 450,000 Smart Meters in the next three years. These will give the benefits given above, but with the additional feature of constant updates as to electricity usage. This will allow consumers to go online and see how their energy consumption changes as they switch off lights, change to energy saving lightbulbs or make other energy saving measures. Many of us are already performing this monitoring of course with in-home energy consumption meters – you can even connect some models to the computer to download information for analysis. Personally, I’d rather do something useful rather than pore over traces of energy consumption blips.  The UK consultation appears to say that this is the scope of what will be installed by 2020, although the consultation document mentions control of appliances too.

The next step is to add connectivity to appliances in the home. Then, you’ll be able to see what each appliance is consuming. Not that you can avoid running a washing machine or dishwasher, but at least you can have the anxiety of knowing the damage it is causing the environment. Problem is, there is no standard as to how the appliance will communicate with the meter. Will the countries of the world unite and choose one, world-wide standard? Or will they choose regional standards, much as they have with mobile telephones, Television and even to some extent wireless LAN? I expect we will have many standards, so what this will mean is problems for the appliance manufacturers as they will have to further regionalise their products, adding to the cost for the consumer (in addition to the additional cost of adding this monitoring technology).

Then, what will the functionality of the device inside the appliance be? Just energy usage? Or will we be able to control the appliance? These standards need to be set from day one, otherwise we will end up with many variants of usability and functionality in the home.

What will the cut-off point of appliance monitoring be? Will we just monitor appliances that consume over a kilowatt, or down to a hundred watts, or even everything? If it’s the latter, think of the consequence of monitoring your mobile phone charger and table lamps. It’s not as if we have enough data flying around with emails, now we will be bothered with the minutiae of the charge cycle of the Nintendo DS.

How long will it take to get these connected appliances around the home? We had a washing machine that I kept going for twenty years before we relented and replaced it. If I managed to do that again, I could delay Big Brother’s Master Plan until 2029! – Which brings me neatly to another point. Who will get this data? Just us, or will the Government be watching intently our gaming habits and when we wash our underwear? I’m sure at some point they’ll claim that this information will be of use in the fight against terrorism – but, in any case it will turn up in court as evidence that someone was at home because they were playing Call Of Duty on the PS3! With the Government’s exemplary (!) record of keeping our data secure, I’m sure we are all comfortable with them having access to our usage information aren’t we?

Another touted function of the “Smart Meter” is that you’ll be able to remotely control these appliances remotely. You will conveniently be able to switch the oven off if you are going to be late coming home. More importantly, at times of peak demand, the Government will be able to reduce demand for devices that are deemed ‘non-critical’. Switching off the heating for ten minutes, or a refrigerator for an hour shouldn’t make a difference should it?

So as Nick Hunn has asked on his blog – what about security? Will the hackers be able to get in and monitor your appliances too? If they can control them, then children will have a modern day substitute for ‘Knock Down Ginger’. They’ll be able to annoy you by switching off the telly in the middle of The X Factor (maybe a Good Thing, if John & Edward are on), but they’ll also be able to control your heating. Not a problem particularly you might think, who would be bothered to go to that effort, but if they switch off your granny’s heating and she dies, who is to blame? the hackers, or even the Government for allowing an insecure system to start with?

So, all of these questions are to be answered. I’m in the middle of this industry in the connectivity arena and I can’t see any answers to these questions even though I ought to see an inside track. Many customers are talking about making “Smart Meters”, but they are all waiting for someone else to take the lead. If they wait for the Government, will it be the right system?

Some people are excited about the prospect of smart meters, but until I know what they are going to be and the scope of their function, I’ll reserve judgement. Will the use be biased towards the consumer, the energy companies or the Government? If the consumer isn’t going to get the majority of the benefit why should we pay for the additional cost or is it another form of stealth tax? – let’s face it, by creating a new industry, there’s lots of scope for new taxation.

What IS a Smart Meter? What will it do? How will it connect? How will it be secure? How long will it take?

Does anyone know? Call me cynical, but I reckon we’re getting hyped up about something none of us understand.

Advertisements