The UK is about to embark on an ambitious programme to install smart meters in all domestic and small business premises. The energy industry is already planning to deliver, but we need two vital pieces of the jigsaw. The smart meter technical specification, and details of how dynamic the communication infrastructure will be.
The government hopes to publish these within the next three months, but concerns are surfacing that the system will not be as smart as it should be.
The basic smart meter does two things; firstly tells people how much energy they're using in real time, understanding consumption being the key to reducing it. Secondly it can be read remotely without the need for a human meter reader to visit the premises.
Both these functions are great improvements on the existing metering technology, but is that Smart? Does the meter enable smart energy usage?
In order to decarbonise our energy sources, we need a smart metering system that is intelligent! Most of us are too busy to continually think about how much energy we're using, but smart meters could enable automation of the process.
After all, do you really care when your water is heated as long as you have a hot shower when you want it? Smart meters should be able to work together to optimise energy usage around the neighbourhood, saving on upgrading the network. So water heating happens at different times of day in neighbouring properties - and not while everyone's cooking the dinner.
Households with PV solar panels should have a metering system that optimises usage of their own power before importing from the grid - so that the water gets heated when the sun is shining. Longer term smart meters could match consumption with availability of renewable energy production - powering down the freezer when the wind drops.
There has been a lot of debate about what smart metering systems can do. Yet the UK government is lacking the vision of enabling smart meters to deliver much beyond providing energy usage information to customers and their suppliers, principally they may not support real time communication between meters and suppliers. The smart metering infrastructure put in now may have a 20-year working life, which seems to work against the desperate need to empower customers to manage their energy usage efficiently and effectively now.
Network companies also need real time smart meter access if they are to run the networks in future, with the predicted uptake of electric vehicles and heat pumps expected to increase electricity usage. Network companies have two choices, dig up and relay bigger cables, or manage their network smarter. Key to this is being able to reduce non time dependent load via smart meters so that existing cables can support the increasing demand (or local generation).
That all said, even the basic smart metering system will bring benefit to consumers who wish to engage. Just understanding how much energy the house uses when everything is supposedly turned off can lead to significant behavioural changes to reduce their consumption. Even just getting bills based on actual readings will help as energy prices invariably increase with fossil fuel prices.
But smart meters could deliver so much more, and I hope that the government seize this opportunity for a step change to encourage more intelligent use of energy.