In praise of smart meters

by Richard Keech

2019-01-10

In Victoria, Australia, we now have a complete roll out of smart meters for our home electrical supply. It’s not unusual to find people who are of the view that smart meters are bad and that the roll out program was a costly failure.  I want to present an alternative view.  Smart meters give important capability, and the roll-out program has probably saved lives.

IMG_20180927_163255

Overview

At face value, the promise of smart meters is:

  • remote read, i.e. no one needs to attend your premises to read the meter;
  • more data, i.e. more information about your consumption patterns can help consumers, government and industry.

I think that those things are true, but there’s more.

Life saving?

The Victorian smart-meter roll out involved considerable incidental rectification of latent electrical safety problems. I was present on 9 May 2012 when my smart meter was installed in my house and I watched how it happened in the neighbourhood. It was apparent to me that a high proportion of homes had underlying electrical issues that prevented simple and immediate installation. As a result, in many houses, the meter was not installed until after any underlying electrical issues in the meter box were rectified. Many of these fixes related to underlying electrical safety issues. The net result was that:

  1. the smart meter program bore the considerable cost of this necessary rectification; and
  2. we’ve probably avoided many electrical accidents as a result. So the smart-meter program has probably saved many lives in Victoria already.

The trouble is that people don’t see accidents avoided.  So the benefit is enjoyed by the community, but nobody really notices.  Perhaps there’s scope for research to look at the statistics to see if it bears out my hypothesis that smart meters saved lives, even if only incidentally.

Consumption data

Interval data

The data about energy consumption that most people talk about is the so-called interval data that records consumption every half hour for billing purposes.  If you’re keen on understanding your own consumption patterns then this consumption data is available to consumers via a web portal, either from your electricity retailer, or your local electricity distributor.  I get this from my distributor, Jemena.

The only trouble with this is that the usefulness of knowing your consumption yesterday or last month only goes so far.  Far better to understand what’s going on now

Real-time data

‘Real-time’ is engineers’ speak for live, as-it’s-happening data.  There are interesting things you can figure out if you can see what is happening with your consumption as it is happening.

The smart meters in Victoria actually have the facility to provide this real-time data to devices within the home.  Unfortunately hardly anyone knows about it.

Zigbee wireless. The meters have a wireless radio interface called Zigbee which talks to devices on the premises.  The typical use is for an in-home device (IHD) which can display (almost) real-time consumption for the occupant to see.

in-home-display
In-home displays can show real-time energy consumption

Using the data – baseline consumption. IHDs allow consumers to do a few useful things.  First it can help understand baseline consumption, i.e. the rate of energy consumption when all normal appliances and lights are off.  So this is the typical overnight consumption associated with your fridge plus devices on standby.  It’s useful to know your night-time baseline consumption so that you have a basis for comparison.  Perhaps you’re going to bed. You look at your IHD and it says your consuming 200 watts more than your regular baseline.  This is a clue that something has been left turned on that, perhaps, should not have been.

Using the data – appliance consumption. It can be useful for consumers to know how quickly your devices gobble up energy when they’re turned on.  So the user can look at the IHD, note the consumption (power in watts), then turn on the device in question and note the consumption again.  The difference between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ power levels is the power used by the devices.

Other benefits. Note that the kind of IHDs that talk directly to smart meters (i.e. Zigbee) are not the only ones out there.  Some IHDs require an electrician install a sensor in the meter box to talk via wireless to your display device.  However, Zigbee IHDs have some particular advantages compared to other consumer IHDs:

  • The data is authoritative, i.e. it’s the meter’s own perspective on the consumption, not based on a second device installed alongside the meter;
  • It shows the meter’s consumption registers – a little like the odometer in your car.
  • It has the capability (so far unused) for the power company to send messages and alarms to the display – useful, for example, in case of a peak demand event.
  • It can display real-time pricing information.  This capability is also unused.

Device control and demand response

Another cool thing that’s possible courtesy of the Zigbee wireless capability already in our smart meters is device control.  Some types of device consume power at a fairly high rate but are not essential. For example pool pumps and air conditioners can often be turned off for an hour here or there without adverse consequences, and this can help the grid at times of very high demand.

Switching things off in response to peak power use is called ‘demand response’. There’s many ways to do it, and it is an important part of the mix in a modern well-managed power grid.  Smart meters have a role to play in this regard.

Rapid account change over

A side effect of remote reading of meters is that there’s no need for a delay in account creation. Without smart meters, there’s a need to get a meter reading coinciding with the beginning of the new electricity account.  With smart meters, this can usually be all done over the phone and same-day.  This is a great help for people moving house.

Sad face

The bad news is that, as far as I can tell, at the time of writing there are no longer any Zigbee In-Home Displays available for retail sale in Australia.  The ample capability inherent in Victorian smart meters is likely to continue to go under utilised.

In an ideal world, every home would have an energy in-home display.  Today the only real options are the non-Zigbee units such as the Efergy Elite smart energy monitor from Reduction Revolution or the the Watts Clever energy monitor.

Further Reading

Latimer, C., 2018, ‘What’s so smart about electricity smart meters?’, Sydney Morning Herald, https://www.smh.com.au/business/consumer-affairs/what-s-so-smart-about-electricity-smart-meters-20180314-p4z4bb.html

Chandrashekeran, S., 2018, ‘Smart-er metering policy’, University of Melbourne, https://geography.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/2685643/Smart-er-meter-policy-230218.pdf

 

 

 

 

 

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